The room was surprisingly cold. Sterile. He’d expected something more comforting from a therapist’s office. Perhaps a chaise lounge he could lie down on while he stared at the ceiling, arms folded neatly on his chest. That’s what they always looked like on TV. This place was literally a box with a window. It had carpet and the walls were more cream than white, but still, it was clinical. It reminded him of rooms he’d rather forget.
‘Zach, isn’t it? How are you feeling?’
Zach. Yeah sometimes. Sometimes Zeddy. Sometimes Zee. Sometimes Little Buddy. All Gabriel’s pet names for him, interchangeable depending on his big-brother’s mood. And then there was Z. His letter. The letter he’d been assigned by the Special Requirements Unit during the years he’d spent learning how to kill people.
Zach swallowed, his throat felt impossibly dry. He shifted in his chair, but there was no position that felt right. He tipped his head once to acknowledge her question.
The therapist seemed nice enough. Attractive too, which wasn’t helping much. He couldn’t speak to civilians at the best of times – that’s why he was there – but the pretty lady who couldn’t have been out of university more than a few years, staring at him with concerned, doe-like eyes was making him think all sorts of things he wished he wasn’t. Zach felt his cheeks flush. This had been a bad idea.
He’d developed a strange condition over the last four years. There was a distinct possibility that he’d always had it, of course, but it was only upon having to actually mix with regular people that it had become apparent. Someone would speak to him and Zach would answer in his head, but somehow the words never came out. It was awkward. Embarrassing. Gabriel had tried to help him, but had little patience for anything less than perfection. Now he just told people Zach was mute. Zach didn’t want to disappoint Gabriel.
He opened his mouth only to shut it again. His cheeks were roasting. The room felt tight. Had it got smaller? Beads of sweat prickled on his forehead and he could feel his underarms saturating his tee. They had been taught to find calm in the most dangerous, precarious situations, yet here he was about to disintegrate, because a pretty woman was talking to him.
She leaned forward in her chair, nudging a glass of water in his direction.
‘This is a safe space, Zach. You don’t have anything to worry about. And you know, anything you tell me will be in the strictest confidence.’
Zach nodded once more, but he was barely listening to her now. He was tapping his fingers on the arm of the chair, contemplating the drop if he leapt out the window. He swallowed, trying to find what he wanted to say. How was his skin dripping wet, yet his throat impossibly dry?
‘S-s-sorry,’ he managed. He pushed up from the chair, it fell backwards as he darted out the door. Zach didn’t stop until he’d descended the five flights of stairs and burst out into the thick Autumn air.
On the sidewalk he put his hands on his knees waiting for the vomit that was pressing against the back of his throat to escape. Gabriel would be wondering where he was anyway. He’d try again another day. Maybe.
‘That was amazing,’ the girl breathed.
‘You can leave now.’
She pushed onto her elbows, white cotton bed sheets tangled around her. Her blue eyes were wide, golden hair catching the light from the street lamps outside his bedroom window. She would have been pretty, if he cared about that sort of thing.
Gabriel closed his eyes. He reached his arms up in a comforting stretch behind his head. ‘I’m done. You can leave.’
Her weight disappeared from the bed. The predictable sounds of her swiping up discarded clothes and slamming the door came next, right before she called him a pig. Seconds later he fell into the sweet abyss of sleep. It couldn’t have been long afterwards that he sat bolt upright clutching his chest. The bedside clock read all zeros. Midnight. Great. Perhaps he should’ve been more affectionate. A companion might’ve kept the nightmares at bay. Pushing his hands through his wavy hair, he yawned. Doubtful, he thought. More likely he’d wake up alarmed, forget she was there and do something… well, something bad. Being able to kill someone with one strike in the right spot didn’t make for a great slumber partner.
Gabriel swung his legs from the bed and stared at the reflection looking back at him from the mirrored wardrobes. In the low light from outside his dark blond hair looked almost black. It was getting a bit long, almost falling in his eyes. He’d have to cut it soon. A scar running from this collarbone down to his heart almost glowed in the darkness. He’d got a tan over summer, so it stood out against his golden skin. He touched it lightly as the memory tried to come back to him. He pushed it to the back of his mind and got to his feet. The midnight kitchen-run was a standard occurrence; he longed for one night where he could sleep through. Not much to ask.
In the kitchen, the surfaces shone wth an orange hue. The light above the oven had been left on. Zach was on a stool at the kitchen bench, a bowl of untouched cereal beside him. Eyes closed, his cheek pressed against the marble counter, drool had collected next to his chin soaking into his mop of white-blond hair. Gabriel nudged him out of the way so he could get to the sink. Taking a glass from the draining board he turned the tap, filling and emptying the glass three times.
‘Zee,’ he said. The boy was five years younger than Gabriel and it showed as soon as he opened his eyes. So much innocence in there. Sometimes Gabriel hated him for that. Except he didn’t. He could never hate Zach. Perhaps he just wanted to. ‘Go to bed.’
‘I wanted to make sure you were okay. I heard that girl leave.’
‘No different to any other night.’
Zach smiled. ‘She didn’t break any of our belongings. That’s progress.’
Gabriel sniffed out a laugh and gulped back the icy water. ‘Progress indeed. Jenny was far more dignified in her departure.’
‘Jane,’ Zach corrected.
Gabriel chuckled some more and headed back towards his room. ‘Go back to bed, Zeddy boy. No need for both of us to suffer the joys of insomnia.’
‘I’m not tired just yet.’ The boy’s voice, still full of sleep, was concerned. He was always worried about Gabriel, which was irritating at best. Hating the world was so much harder when there was someone right there reminding you it wasn’t all bad.
‘The drool on the counter would disagree.’ Gabriel didn’t wait to hear what Zach would do, he closed his door and fell face first into his pillow.
Sunday mornings were for running. He forced himself up at five despite a night spent tossing and turning and dragged Zach out with him. After seven miles they stopped near the Ben Franklin Bridge. There was a makeshift gym constructed to look like a piece of art. Zach started his routine with pull-ups. Determined to bulk up a little, his frame had always been small in comparison to the other boys from the unit and Gabriel knew he wanted nothing more than to be able to hold his own if ever faced with the invisible threat they knew would never stop hunting them.
‘Don’t wear yourself out. Today’s the day,’ Gabriel called over the sound of a cargo ship horning its way into the harbour. The air was thick and warm, clouds dense. The summer heat was lingering, but rain looked imminent. It might cool the air down at least.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ The girl’s voice was mildly familiar. Or perhaps it was just her tone, one he was very accustomed to. Gabriel turned.
‘I told you to stay the hell away from me. You following me?’
She was attractive, but then, they always were. She had short black hair. Her eyes were green and set a little too far apart on her face. Cat-like.
‘I’m sorry, um,’ he half tried for a name, but his attempt just made him laugh.
She stalked forward. He knew what was coming, snatching her wrist before her hand connected with his cheek.
‘Nobody hits me,’ he said, all trace of humour having left him.
‘You’re a jerk, Gabriel. Get the hell out of town or I’ll have Daddy throw you out. You don’t want to get on his bad side.’
‘I get on everyone’s bad side, sweetheart.’
She yanked her hand from his grasp and spun on her heel, joining three more girls who’d been waiting for her on the sidewalk. They got into a high-end 4×4 and took off. Gabriel turned to find Zach staring at him with an expression that suggested he’d told him so.
‘We leaving tonight then?’
‘We have to keep moving, bud.’
‘I just wish we could stay somewhere for a bit. Just longer than a few weeks is all.’
‘And you think if I restrained my after-hours’ activities we’d have a better chance of doing that.’
The kid shrugged.
Gabriel closed his eyes and let out a groan. ’Where d’you wanna go? We could head somewhere new. Maybe the West Coast. Get some more summer.’
Zach’s nose scrunched up. ‘I prefer the cold. Plus I’ve got a lead on a job in Boston. You’ve been promising me a chance for months now.’
Gabriel must’ve looked unsure, because Zach added quickly, ‘Boston was good. It’s the longest we stayed anywhere, you said yourself you liked it. Anonymous, kind of dangerous you said. Remember?’
Gabriel looped his arm around Zach’s neck, pulling him into a headlock and ruffling his hair. The thought of the girl evaporated quickly. Girls being angry with him was standard, but maybe Zach was right. Perhaps if he reigned himself in, they could lay low and make somewhere a home. Even for a little while.
‘Boston it is. Let’s get this airport job done and hit the road. I’ll be on my best behaviour from now on. I promise.’