“Oh good. Looks like they’re here,” Anna said, relieved to see both Dusty’s truck and Colleen’s little two-door coupe parked on the roundabout in front of their home as Thom’s truck pulled up over the crest of their long gravel driveway in the twilight gloom. She was glad now that Thom had come to get her. The rain twisted down in nearly solid curtains, and his four-by-four had been far better suited to these conditions than her little compact had any hope of being. Although, she did hope not to find her own car crushed by falling debris whenever she next made it back to work.
“My god, who ordered this weather?!” she exclaimed, clambering from the truck and sprinting for the porch as soon as she’d slammed the door shut, Thom just behind her.
The front door opened as they reached it, revealing Dusty’s grinning face, and Colleen just behind him, handing out bath towels as they scrambled inside.
“We were just about to dial 911,” Dusty joked as they toweled off hair and clothes in the entryway. “You guys must have left campus, what, two hours ago?”
“Every time we changed course, they changed the obstacles,” Thom said. “How was your drive?”
“Complicated,” Colleen said. “We had to backtrack a few times. There were some trees down over Couchette, and a flooded intersection on Masonic. But our trip was obviously way easier than yours.”
Anna raised her head, and sniffed. “What is that delicious smell?” She looked at Colleen. “Have you already started cooking?”
Colleen shrugged. “We brought a steak, and found lots of nice fresh veggies in your fridge. I saw no point in sitting around the TV waiting for you to make it here and cook for us.”
“Aren’t you a godsend!” Anna said. “Is there anything left for me to help with?”
Colleen smiled. “Actually, your timing’s perfect. We didn’t realize you’d be this long, so…dinner’s ready now. There’s no rush, of course. I turned the steak off partway through, but it’ll only take a minute to finish—whenever you’re ready.”
Anna turned to Dusty. “You should marry her. As soon as possible.”
“I could’ve sworn that was already settled.” He grinned at Colleen. “I, of course, have been sitting around the TV while she cooked. With one of your beers. And the weather channel.”
“And how’s that looking?” Thom asked, hanging his towel on the entryway coat rack as everyone started toward the living room.
“Uglier by the second. No tornadoes yet, but the flooding’s gotten worse. Power outages spreading like jock itch in a high school locker room. We’re pretty much lottery winners to have power here still. Barometric pressure’s still falling like a cannonball, and no one can explain it.”
“Interesting times,” Thom mused.
“I’ll just run up and change these clothes before we all sit down to dinner,” Anna said, already heading for the stairs.
“Me too,” said Thom, right behind her.
Upstairs, in their room, she and Thom did little more than peel off their sodden clothes and pull on drier ones before heading back down. Still, they reached the dining room to find a delightful salad and several delicious-smelling bowls of steaming hot food already laid out on the beautifully set table. As they took their seats, Colleen came from the kitchen with a platter of thick-sliced steak. Dusty followed close behind, pulling out her chair when she had set the platter down.
Watching Dusty play ‘husband’ brought a sudden warmth to Anna’s eyes, and a self-conscious smile to her lips, as she recalled the anything-but-normal boy she’d known once—back on the Avenue. All he’d ever really wanted—and never had back then—was family. Now, at last, he was really going to have that. Anna could hardly have invented a better partner for him than Colleen. Such very long journeys—for both Dusty and herself—in what seemed so few years.
When Dusty had finished circling the table to fill their glasses with Syrah, Colleen raised her glass to Thom and Anna. “Bon appétit—and welcome home!”
“We appreciate your hospitality,” Thom joked. “Especially on such a dreadful night.”
And, the lights went out.
“Well, fuck,” said Dusty, in the darkness.
“Everyone stay put.” Anna rose from her chair. “I know where the candles are. Our dinner will just be that much more romantic now.”
“Thank god it’s cooked already,” said Colleen.
“You mean, thank you,” said Dusty. Anna saw him lean over in the darkness and give her a kiss. “Smooth work, honey.”
Happily, the candles were close by, in the sideboard just a few feet from the table. Nor, as Anna’s eyes adjusted, was the room entirely dark, having several windows and a skylight. But without the background buzz and whir of clocks and appliances, or the TV’s quiet murmur from the living room, the groan and creak of walls and timbers against bursts of wind and the clatter of sticks and branches blown onto the roof were all suddenly much louder. From the back deck came a hollow thump as something large blew against the wall, probably one of the plastic chairs they hadn’t remembered to bring inside. Anna hadn’t given any thought, until now, to all the trees crowding the house, and hoped they’d all prove flexible enough to bend instead of break.
At the sideboard, she felt around for the cupboard handle, then for the box of candles lying inside among precarious-feeling stacks of glassware. Cleverly, she’d placed a small book of matches in the box as well, and seconds later their table was bathed in warm candlelight.
“Well, this is romantic!” Colleen said, passing the steak platter to Anna.
“Rather cozy,” Anna agreed.
“Perfect weather for a murder,” said Dusty, serving himself a big spoonful of whipped yams.
“No one’s been murdered,” Thom said.
“Yet,” Dusty mumbled around his first mouthful.
The conversation paused.
“Way to kill the buzz, honey,” Colleen teased, stiffly.
“Sorry. …This sure is delicious!” Dusty added with a touch too much enthusiasm.
“It really is, Colleen,” said Anna. “Thank you so much. And I, for one, wish to give this amazing dinner and delightful wine the attention they deserve before we get into…all of that.”
“All of what?” asked Dusty.
“Quit while you’re ahead, Dusty,” Thom said, offering him a wry grin.
After several minutes filled with nothing but the clink of flatware on china, and the occasional thump or groan of storm wind against the house, Dusty softly cleared his throat, then raised his glass to Thom and Anna. “If no one minds, I would like to toast my two best friends, my wisest teachers, and my most important role models, on the eve of their fifth anniversary.”
Anna raised a hand to her mouth, and turned to Thom. “My god, with everything that’s happened, I completely forgot!”
Thom smiled at her softly. “But Dusty’s reminded us in time.” He turned to grin at his adopted son and said, “Well done.”
“I’m redeemed then?” Dusty asked.
“Oh no…” Anna groaned, dropping her face into her hands. “I left your gift at my office, Thom.” She looked up at him contritely. “I kept it there so you wouldn’t find it.”
“Well, that turned out to be a very effective hiding place.” Thom gave her a crooked smile. “Mine’s hidden out in the garage, in a can of nails. I’m trusting you not to go out and look, now that I’ve told you.”
“I’m so sorry.” Anna felt so disappointed in herself. It was a rare volume by one of Thom’s favorite poets. She’d looked everywhere to find it. “What an absentminded thing—”
Thom leaned in and cut her off with a very long and lovely kiss. She felt torn between her pleasure in it and embarrassment at having Colleen and Dusty there to watch. When they were done, Thom leaned back, looking mysteriously charmed. “Go a little easier on yourself, okay? It’s almost like you really haven’t noticed anything that’s happened today.”
“Well, it’s not like she hasn’t been distracted,” Dusty said with a smirk. “There’s all that work she failed to pack up when she left. Not to mention my safety to monitor all afternoon.”
Anna turned an evil smile on Dusty. “I hope you enjoyed your brief taste of redemption.”
Thom reached over to squeeze Anna’s hand. “I have all the gifts I’ll ever want—for this or any other anniversary—right here, my love.”
“I hope you’re taking notes,” Colleen whispered theatrically to Dusty.
Dusty snorted a laugh. “Thanks for kickin’ the bar up, Thom. I won’t forget this.”
Even Anna laughed.
“Afraid I screwed up too,” Dusty said. “I was gonna get you guys a card, but all they had…” He fumbled to a halt. “So how are you two planning to celebrate tomorrow?” He grinned wickedly. “A canoe ride at the park? Maybe dinner at one of those posh riverfront restaurants? I hear that’s a pretty hot ticket right now.”
Anna sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Okay. I guess it was dumb to think we could all sit here and ignore it. Shall we just talk about these letters, and get it over with?”
“Is it just me,” Colleen asked, “or does all that seem like days ago now?”
“It’s been one very packed day. That’s for sure,” said Thom. “So, who wants to start?”
Everyone looked at Dusty, who said, “Well, I’d rather hear what you think, Thom. Not to poke old wounds, but you’re the one here with experience in, you know…security issues.”
Colleen looked around. “Why’s that?” She looked at Thom. “You’re a life coach…right?”
Anna saw Dusty looking awkwardly at Colleen, and thought, Oh. “You two have never discussed this, Dusty?”
“Well…no,” he said, sheepishly. “I mean, why would it have come up?”
“Why would what have come up?” Colleen asked, looking concerned now.
“I have an unusual past, Colleen,” Thom said. “It’s not something…any of us normally has much reason, or desire, to discuss. In fact, the last time I can remember even mentioning it was years ago, which is, I’m sure, why Dusty hasn’t ever thought to tell you I’d been kidnapped.”
Anna felt slightly ashamed as Colleen’s mouth fell open. “None of us intended to keep secrets from you, dear. As Thom said, it’s ancient history for us, really.”
“Well…I…” Colleen looked back at Thom, clearly flummoxed. “When?”
“Over a decade ago,” Thom said.
“Actually,” said Anna, “Thom and I met at the hospital where he was being cared for just after his…escape. I was there visiting Dusty…” She glanced at Dusty, who was no longer looking at anyone, and wondered how so many things could get so balled up in a single day.
“After my fight with Matt,” Dusty said, looking up at last. Owning it, as Anna and Thom had worked so hard at teaching him to do, all those years ago. It broke her heart—and made her proud of him. “Thom was in a room just down the hall from mine. The wing for people who’d been accidentally stabbed, shot or pummeled, I guess.” He grinned a little—or tried to.
Colleen shook her head. “Dusty’s told me about what happened. With his friend that night. And about how you came to find him at the hospital, Anna. But…” She turned to look at Dusty. “He never said a word about…any of this.”
Dusty gazed back at her, looking helpless.
Thom sighed, and leaned toward them more intently. “Putting that experience behind me wasn’t easy, Colleen. It took work, and time. And once I’d finally done it… Well, I really didn’t want to talk about it anymore. It just seemed…very unconstructive.” He glanced apologetically at Dusty, and then at Anna. “I’m sure I communicated that discomfort to both of them in all sorts of ways. I guess it’s not just ancient history. I think we’ve all put it much more forcefully behind us than that. It’s…a wall we just don’t cross anymore. If Dusty hasn’t crossed that wall with you, I’m entirely certain that had everything to do with years of unconscious conditioning, but nothing to do with trust.”
She gazed at him a moment before nodding, then turned back to Dusty. “Yes. Of course.”
“Collie,” Dusty said, taking her hands in his. “I love and trust you—and these two people across the table—more than I have ever loved or trusted anyone. I want no secrets between us. Ever. And I’d have told you all about this, if it had ever crossed my mind.” He glanced at Anna, then at Thom. “But it’s like Thom said. We’ve all just grown so used to…never going there.”
Colleen nodded, and gave him a kiss, then turned to Thom. “We don’t have to talk about it anymore now—if you’d rather not.”
“Oh, it’s not like that.” Thom leaned back, waving her concern away. “You’re a member of this family. You have every right to know. I’m sorry we didn’t think to tell you sooner. If you have questions, by all means, ask them.”
“Well…who did it? Why?”
“Oh boy…” Thom looked around the table with a lopsided smile. “I’m sure this will sound hard to swallow, but I don’t actually have answers to either of those questions.”
Colleen’s brows shot up. “You don’t know who kidnapped you—or why?”
Thom made a helpless gesture. “They were wearing masks when they grabbed me. They kept me for almost three years, and in all that time never came to me without those masks, or let me hear their voices, or even know where I was being held.”
“They didn’t even talk? At all? …For three years?”
“Mostly, they just brought me food. Or bathroom supplies. They had no trouble making me understand if they wanted me to stand, or sit, or come, or stay back. A few times, they used written notes. But they clearly weren’t interested in explaining things to me.” He shook his head. “I was kept in rooms without windows, or with windows that were covered. Sometimes I lost all track of time, or even day or night, for weeks, or months. With their masks, I couldn’t even be sure how many of them there were. I was moved to new locations sometimes, but always at night, blindfolded until after I’d been locked in my new quarters. They never told me what they wanted. Never spoke at all. I guess I could have tried harder to discover something more, but I wasn’t interested in being hurt. And they weren’t treating me that badly—beyond the obvious.”
“So…what happened?” Colleen asked. “Anna said you escaped?”
Thom shook his head. “No. They let me go.” He shrugged. “I have no idea why they did that either. One day, I was blindfolded and moved again. I had no idea how long I’d been captive by that time. I’d…grown used to it—and just went along as usual. Until the van slowed down, and they pulled me to my feet, still blindfolded, and started shoving me around. A minute later, I was falling. …Thrown into the street.” He fell silent, looking lost.
For just a moment, Anna saw a blankness in his face that unsettled her more than anything else that had happened that day.
“I don’t think they even stopped the van,” Thom said at last, looking up at them again. “Just slowed down and shoved me out.”
“Oh my god.” Colleen looked stricken. “They were never caught?”
Thom shook his head. “There was so little I could tell anyone. They’d been so careful.”
“So just…nothing?” she asked,.. “You still have—”
“—no idea,” Thom finished for her. “The whole thing… A pointless mystery. Not until I heard people around me shouting, felt their hands on me, their questions and offers of help, did I even start to understand that they were really gone. My keepers. That I was…” He turned to Anna, his eyes glittering with unshed tears. “Free.” The word sounded half lodged in his throat.
Her eyes were wet as well by now. She pulled him into her arms, wondering how they had ever managed to pretend so well that this had just never happened to him. She found herself resenting Matt—and whatever ‘them’ had shoved those letters into their hands—and even this absurd storm. It seemed so unfair that, once again, strangers could just reach into their lives, unasked, unlooked for, and make Thom dig this all back up.