My throat tightened as I tried to swallow past the lump in it. Tears trickled down my cheeks, tracing the line of my jaw. “I...you have to have this wrong.”
The officer shook his head, slipping the stained piece of paper into my hand. “I’m sorry, son, but this is all there was. No one has read it as it’s directly meant for you.”
I jerked my arm away. The paper fluttered to the floor and that was a perfect way to ignore the red blots on it. They could’ve simply been wine. She liked to drink a lot. It made sense, right?
I could still see my name printed on the slip of paper in her elegant script.
The dark night seemed to want to climb in through the doorway. The officer had one foot on the doorstep, hitching himself up awkwardly. But I didn’t want him coming in any further. My hands shook as I ran one through the mess of blonde curls on top of my head. Noodle hair, my mother said.
The officer tilted his head up, the shadow of his hat finally uncovering his eyes. They were calm, unaffected. I almost snorted—of course he was unaffected. This was his daily job, coming round telling people that their family members were missing and handing them blood-soaked notes. Of course he was as cool as a god damn cucumber.
I wasn’t aware he was talking to me until his calm expression finally broke. Frowning, he set a hand on my shoulder.
“Kid? Your name?”
I shrugged his hand off and numbly whispered, “Tom. I’m seventeen, not a kid.”
The policeman nodded. “Right. Tom. Do you have any other parental guardians? Your dad, maybe?”
At the mention of the term, I flinched. My skin crawled with now invisible bruises. Shaking my head, I mumbled, “No.”
“Older brother, sister?”
The officer sighed and said, “Tom, you aren’t eighteen. I can’t leave you alone.”
Bile rose in my stomach at the thought of him staying with me. I didn’t want anyone even near me right now. My hands curled into fists at my sides and I forced myself to look the policeman in the eye.
“I can get my neighbour to look in on me, sir, its fine.”
He looked doubtful, but relieved he wouldn’t have to stay with some lanky, seventeen year old kid. With a last glance at me, he nodded and shook my hand. “Sure thing, Tom. Stay safe. I’ll be back around tomorrow to talk things over. Use this time to think things through, okay?”
“Will do,” I said, closing the door. I listened as his footsteps got quieter and quieter before sliding onto the ground. Sobs rose from somewhere deep in my chest but I needed to focus. I needed to anchor my mind onto something to stop the hysteria that was climbing up my throat. My eyes caught on the bloodied piece of paper.
But I still didn’t want to touch it. Vomit threatened to overflow anytime my fingers even brushed the scrap of white. I slumped back against the wall, hugging my slim knees to my chest. I banged my head against the wall—think, Tom, think. Before I could come up with a plan, however, something buzzed against my hip.
I knew what I had to do.
Ten minutes later, a car pulled into my drive. I hadn’t moved from my position in the lobby—I’m pretty sure there were kneecap impressions on my collarbones by now. How the hell had my night gone so wrong? I’d been innocently watching TV, planning to go to a not so innocent party held by someone’s twenty year old cousin. Which, essentially, meant drink and weed.
But here I was, curled up next to my hallway table like a five year old, with the knowledge that my mother was missing.
The doorbell went, followed by three heavy thumps. I swallowed dryly and shakily got to my feet. As soon as I yanked the door open, Christopher stumbled in wearing nothing but running shorts. For a minute, I thought he was drunk but then I heard him snap, “God damn ankle.”
He’d broken it a few months back after tripping out of his car. It was out of a cast but was still weak, despite all the running he did, and it bothered him a lot. I grabbed his arm and pulled him properly inside.
“Alright, alright, calm down, dude,” he sighed, leaning down to rub at his ankle. “What’s the hurry?”
“My mum’s missing,” I choked out. It was the first time I’d said it out loud and I wasn’t prepared for how much it stung. My lungs seized tight and I leaned against the wall, hand grasping at my chest. Everything was burning, aching.
Christopher paused, eyes flashing to mine. His blonde hair fell in straggles in front of his eyes, but clearly the news had shocked him out of shifting it. It was completely silent for a second. My panting broke the silence. I fisted my hands against my eyes and clenched my jaw shut in an attempt to stop the awful noise. Large hands settled on my shoulders and I was suddenly smashed against a huge chest.
“Man, I’m so sorry,” the blonde whispered. His American tone still sounded odd to my English ears—even after five years in England, the accent still hadn’t diminished any. His vowels still remained soft, unlike my own, harsher ones.
It was pathetic how I was acting—especially in front of Chris, my only and best (but rather macho) friend—but I didn’t know how else to cope with it. My hands fisted on his back and he said, “Hey, its okay. Is that why you called me here?”
I pulled back, rubbing at my face with both hands. “Sort of. The police gave me a note but I can’t...I...”
The football player nodded, crossing his arms over his chest. “Do you want me to read it?”
I just stared at him. Chris scrubbed at his day-old stubble and crouched to pick up the note. His hands trembled slightly as his fingers brushed the blood spots. On unsteady legs, I went to the kitchen and got a glass of water. The coolness of the liquid seemed to sharpen my mind.
She’d been missing almost two days. My mother worked peculiar hours at the hospital anyway, so I hadn’t thought anything of her absence. Sure, it was weird when she hadn’t replied to my text earlier but I’d just thought she’d been busy...my stomach flipped with nausea and I wanted to curl up all over again.
“Tom?” Chris strode into the kitchen, brow furrowed as he reread the note in his hands. The piece of paper looked so tiny in his large, golden grasp. I licked at the corner of my mouth nervously. A part of me didn’t want to know what was on that paper, but another part was screaming that I needed to know, and I needed to know now.
He leaned against the island and met my eyes.
“Read it.” His voice sounded strained, like someone was strangling it out of him.
My throat contracted. “I...can’t, Chris.”
He looked at the blood stains, then at me, and then back at the note. After a moment, he said, “Okay, how about if I write it out again?”
My head bobbed in short jerks. I found a notepad and pen and shoved them in his direction. The tiny blue pen that I’m pretty sure was stolen from Argos disappeared in his hand; he managed to get halfway through copying the note out before it snapped. Before he could have a chance to swear, I gave him another and finally, eventually, the note was finished. With a weary sigh, Christopher tossed the pad at me.
No bloodstains on this one, I told myself. Limbs rigid, I sat on a chair and pulled the pad into my lap.
I’m so, so sorry. I thought I could keep you away from all this. I thought I could keep you safe, but I couldn’t. This is much bigger than either of us. I’m sorry I never told you about this before it was too late.
The paper had holes through it—I could tell exactly where Chris had pressed too hard.
You aren’t my son, Tom. I found you at the side of the road when you were just a baby. Someone had abandoned you. I thought I was doing the right thing, taking you. But I never told anyone that you weren’t my son. Only because from the moment I picked you up, you were my baby boy. You were my Tommy.
My hand crunched against the edge of the island. Chris, looking over from where he was buried in my fridge, frowned and grunted, “Calm it, man.”
It wasn’t until you were at school that I realised just exactly what I’d taken on. You weren’t normal, Tommy. You were special. But I knew I needed to protect you from people who would take advantage of that speciality. That’s why I joined the Protection. Its a service which helps deal with people like you. People with your condition.
I stopped right then. My stomach was flip flopping all over the place. I wasn’t normal? People with my condition? What the hell was that supposed to mean?! Was I some sort of freak that the government was dying to get their grubby hands on?
Nausea curled in my gut and I had to stop thinking for a moment. Chris wandered over and sat opposite me, half a pizza slice stuffed in his mouth and more food in his bear-hands. I looked at him wearily. He glanced down at the food and winced.
“Sorry man. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic—“
Shaking my head, I gripped at the note. “It’s fine. Chris, what does this mean? What is she trying to say? What the hell is the Protection?”
The blonde shook his head. “Woah, slow down. I don’t know any more than you do.” Chasing the pizza down with a swig of Diet Coke, he added, “Why not check the place out? Might answer some of your questions.”
My brow crinkled. “What place?”
He leaned over and tapped a finger against the pad. “I copied the address down for you.”
My eyes fell to the page. Right enough, at the bottom of the pad were the words:
Once the police realise I’m gone, I want you to go to this address, Tommy. I need you to, if you want to understand what’s going on and why I’ve left you. Go to 111 Newpark Drive. Please.
I love you kiddo. Be brave.
My teeth gnashed together and I suddenly wanted to break into the booze cupboard in the garage. She’d promised me once my father had finally left, taking his bruising fists with him, that she would always keep me safe. I think, even at the young age of fourteen I’d known that that was a promise she couldn’t hope to keep.
And this only served as proof that she couldn't protect me from everything.