For the Tarts.
He sits on the ugly brown leather recliner, not seeming to notice the cracks in the fabric or the way it complained loudly whenever he made the slightest movement, although he is never entirely still and it complains often. I stare back at him, my own position only slightly more comfortable than the one I woke up in, legs still stretched in front of me and back pressed against the arm of a couch which smells appalling, no doubt the result of spending a significant amount of time in this dank, cold place. It would be obvious to anyone looking around where we are, the surroundings give it away easily – the sewers. The only other item in the cavernous area we're in is a splintered box that seems to be doubling up as a table; it is where he rested the can of soda he was chugging on when I first awoke down here.
I have calmed myself considerably. I learned to be streetwise a long time ago, am still furious with myself that I was taken so easily. I'm far more aware of those things than most other women I have met, yet every woman knows the risks of walking the streets alone, can imagine the terror at being whisked away as if we never existed at all – yet it is something most of us try not to let affect us. Until the day it is us.
I am in surprisingly good shape, in spite of everything. My right shoulder aches a little, but it is not as bad as the monstrous bolt of pain that shot through it the first time I moved, rousted into consciousness by the awful smell coming from the couch I lay on. That made me cry out, brought him on the run. There were several confused, loud seconds as I realised I had been brought here against my will, and by whom. But now I am calm.
He indicates vaguely to my shoulder. "I'm sorry about that April, really. I didn't know how else to get you to come with me – how to make you talk to me. After all, it's not since you made an effort to get in touch since you left."
His final words are laden with sarcasm and I don't know how to respond. It seems safer to keep my mouth shut; there is something in his eyes that suggests he is not in a mood to hear apologies. What he wants is an explanation and I don't have one.
"It's just a nerve grip," he continues when I don't reply, a trace of anxiety creeping into his voice. "You'll feel fine in a couple of minutes. Hey, it's not as bad as a bunch of mousers chasing you, or Foot Ninjas burning down the shop, right?"
I shrug, still not trusting myself to open my mouth. I want to know why he has brought me here, what he hopes to achieve, but I don't know how to ask without saying the wrong thing.
He frowns, the movement creasing his wide green face; gritting his teeth and causing me to press warily back against the arm of the couch. The movement is slight but he catches it and I see something else in his face; hurt. I've hurt his feelings and pissed him off and I've only been conscious a few minutes. Remind me never to work for the UN.
"I've pissed you off, I get it," he says, words spat at me like bursts of machine gun fire. "Don't you think you pissed me off? You pissed us all off? Don't you even care what happened while you were away? You haven't even tried to see me!"
"I'm sorry." The words come out before I know I'm going to speak and he gives me a sharp look. I break eye contact right away; hanging my head and feeling my hair hang in my face. It's so cold down here; I'm glad I opted for jeans, less pleased about the strappy top, but I had been dressed to impress when he grabbed me right off the street, before I even realised I wasn't on my own. Surreptitiously I rub at the goose flesh on my arms, not sure whether or not showing weakness is a mistake.
He leans forward, resting his arms on his knees, puts a hand on my knee and causes me to look up, meet his eyes once more. His face is placid, his voice gentle and soothing.
"Let me fill you in on."
After a pause, I nod. What else can I do? I know I can't get away from him and as far as he's concerned, I shouldn't even want to.
He leans back a little. "I don't know what went on between you and Case. I figure that's not my business. But you have no idea what Case went through when you left town. We all knew – ha, we all thought we knew – it was only for a while, to get your head together, but still, I would have thought that you might have called. Hell, even if you went to the middle of the freaking jungle, you could have called or mailed or written or something. You didn't have to drop off the radar."
He gives me a look of reproach, not quite a glare. I bite my lip, wondering if I'm supposed to give him an explanation or maybe an oral report of What I Did On My Holidays, and I give an inaudible sigh of relief when he doesn't give me that chance, continuing with his monologue.
"Anyway. Case was devastated. Had to make sure he didn't go out patrolling the streets at night, not in the mood he was in. Too likely to go too far in a fit of anger and hate himself forever. Took him ages to snap out of it and all the time he was waiting for you to come back, give some sign that you were alive..." He trails off and stares off into the distance; I dare not move, even breathe, in case he becomes angry. His moods have been shifting quickly, unpredictably.
He refocuses seconds later, gives me the ghost of an apologetic grin before remembering the topic of conversation and letting the frown settle in again. "And you didn't think that we missed you? Didn't think that we needed you? I mean, you were a part of the family April! When we didn't know what happened to you, we worried. Especially when we didn't hear from you. You don't know how hard we searched for you – or maybe you do. After all, you had to avoid our searches somehow, right?"
He doesn't even hesitate this time, plunges on with his speech before I could realistically reply. I get the feeling that he has rehearsed these words often in his head, waiting for the moment that he could deliver them in person.
Waiting for now.
"Don tried tracking you on line. Bank activities, stuff like that. Couldn't find a trace of any paper trail though, so we figured that you maybe changed your name or moved to some bank so small that it didn't appear in our searches. Maybe even another country. Was that it? And your other internet accounts, Amazon and eBay stuff, that antiques site you used sometimes, those were never used since you left. It was just like you vanished – and you promised to keep in touch April, you promised."
He scowls, one hand on the arm of the ugly recliner, fingers pressing into it so hard that even in the poor lighting, I imagine I can see his fingers whitening.
"We tried putting posts on message boards you might use, hacked your e-mails, checked everything we could think of. No go. No sign of you anywhere. We even bugged your sisters' phone in the end, did you know that? I suppose you might have guessed. You should have known we'd do anything to find you. Suppose that's why you never called her either. She was always phoning people, asking if they'd seen you. Called Case on the first of every month, without fail."
Shaking his head, he looks down at his hands, forcing the one crushing the chair to release its hold. I sit in silence, eying him warily. But his voice hasn't been rising in anger as he speaks, rather he has been sounding increasingly disheartened as he talks about the search and I don't think he's about to explode. Still, caution is good. I should have remembered that before I got into this situation. I should have been more careful.
The steady drip-dripping of water seems to grow louder in the pause, mingling with his slightly harsh breathing to form a soundtrack to my fear. My own breath comes light and rapid, probably – hopefully – too quiet for him to hear. I would rather he didn't know how afraid I am.
I wonder if he even remembers I am here.
"Don pretty much stuck to the computer," he continues suddenly. "Casey practically bankrupted himself talking to anyone you might have contacted or stayed with, him and Robyn both. We still thought that you just wanted to be left alone for a while, but you didn't call and you didn't come back – and we were scared. Raph took some road trips, tried to put out a few feelers, but it's not easy when you look like us. Mostly to Jersey. I guess you know why."
He plucks something from his belt and throws it to me. It spins lazily across the space between us and I catch it before it can fall to the floor, examining it. A postcard, sent from New Jersey, dated a long time ago. My heart starts beating faster as I see the message – 'Hi guys, just thought I'd check in. I don't know where I'm going but I'll let you know when I get there. Love always, April.'
"Not a word since," he says bitterly. "Didn't you care about how we felt?"
"But I..." I trail off, wondering if trying to explain at this point is a good idea. The postcard is worn, as if it has been handled many times, caressed by caring fingers. I trace the date with my index finger. Such a long time ago...
He waits to see if I have anything else to add, continuing only when it becomes clear I have no idea how to go on. "Usually it was Raph who blurted out what none of us wanted to admit, you remember that? Mr Tactless. We were all just waiting for him to run his mouth. But he managed to keep it under wraps and perhaps it was because of Case – I mean, Casey was moving on, last thing he needed was someone tearing open those wounds all over again. He was human. Humans can get on with things. They always have somewhere left to go and that's a good thing. Casey deserved a break. Anyway, it meant that Raph didn't say what we were all beginning to wonder for a change and Leo was the one who brought it up. Waited until Casey wasn't around and suggested that something bad happened to you."
He stares at me and I can see, even in the gloom, how haunted his eyes are. Yet he smiles at me tentatively.
"None of us wanted to admit it, but it wasn't like you to be out of touch for so long. And he was wrong, wasn't he? Because here you are."
I barely notice the hope in his eyes. Instead, I think of all the names he has mentioned, all the people involved in the search. "Where are they?"
He flinches a little at the question. "We lived violent lives April. You know that."
Standing, he turns away from me and stares at the wall. I don't move. I'm under no illusions about how far I could get, even now. The silence lengthens, punctuated by the dripping pipe, as I wait and wonder what else he has to tell me.
"They're gone," he says abruptly, his whole stance rigid but his head lowered. "Splinter was old, I mean, it was easy to forget that sometimes, but we knew it was only a matter of time, if something else didn't do the job first. Case was reckless and – well, you know how it was with the four of us. It's just me now."
I knew that. From the moment I opened my eyes down here, I knew. There is something about him that broadcasts his solitude.
"I'm sorry," I tell him, and I mean it.
"You could have found all this out," he spits back at me, turning around and running a hand over his bald head. "A call, a letter. Just knowing you were alright – that would have made things easier, given us one less thing to worry about. You didn't have to tell us where you were! We understood, you should know that!"
I shrink back a little as he advances, threatening without even trying to be, not seeming to realise that he's intimidating me. I wonder if he even remembers that I'm there. His eyes are on me, his words directed at me, but his stare seems to go right through me, focusing on somewhere else.
"And even if you wanted nothing else to do with us, we would have got it! We knew how much trouble we brought to those who got involved in our lives, to you, to Casey – we were always waiting for her to back off and we didn't mind, never held it against her when she said she needed time to get over everything that happened between her and Casey. And I guess that given the distance she could see how much trouble we brought to her life, she might have backed off and started again far away from us and then things might have been normal for her. But she should have told us! She should have said! She shouldn't have left us to wonder – to imagine the worst...
He turns from me again, shoulders hitching. My heartbeat accelerated as soon as he began shouting at me and although he seems upset, I'm not reassured as to my safety. I notice as soon as he changes the target of his diatribe, no longer you, but her.
I think he's realised that I'm not April.
I'm still afraid. He stole me off the street and has me trapped far below it. Obviously his existence is some kind of secret, otherwise I would have heard of it before now, so what would he do to keep it a secret?
In spite of that though, I pity him. The postmark is more than twenty years old. Twenty years of not knowing, twenty years of thinking him and his friends have been abandoned by this April person. And the growing knowledge that she probably did not leave them as she did on purpose.
Am I in more danger, now that he has accepted the truth?
He wipes at his face and then turns to me. His green face is lined and careworn, his body marked with scars that tell their own story of the 'violent lives' he has mentioned before. I swing my feet from their reclining position, ready to run. This might be the last chance I get.
He bows his head. "I'm sorry."
I don't relax, just in case this is a ruse – but if it is, it's a good one. His shoulders sag and there's a look on his face, bewilderment and shame. He stares at me like he can't imagine how I came to be here.
"You just – you look so much like her," he continues, eyes pleading with me to understand. "I was so sure..."
He shakes his head, breaks eye contact with me. "But she would be older now – and you look like she did then. I – you must think I'm..."
I interrupt. Regardless if it's the wrong thing to do, if I set him off on this dangerous fantasy again, I don't like the look that has replaced the zealous light in his eyes. His face is a picture of defeat, of impending solitude. Of sadness.
"I think that you're holding out hope and that might not be a bad thing," I tell him. "But even if I was her, it would have been the wrong way to approach things."
"I guess so."
He takes a last, long look at me, then walks toward the exit. "There's a ladder leading to the street through here. Take the torch behind you. You should find it easy enough. I'm sorry."
"Wait!" I get to my feet for the first time since I ended up down here. "What if I told someone about you?"
Oh brilliant. What a stupid thing to say!
He doesn't turn, but I can hear the hint of a smile in his voice. "Kidnapped by a giant talking reptile from the sewers. Sounds like something everyone can believe. And the stuff here proves nothing. It's not where I live, just – somewhere I know. Could have been done by homeless trying to get out of the rain."
"I wouldn't anyway." Damn, I want to convey so much more than I know how to say. "You can't just take off! I need to – hell, I need to know who you are. What you are. I don't even know if you have a name!"
He turns toward me again and I see the faintest hint of a smile, although his face is weary. "I have a name."
I wait expectantly.
He vanishes through the exit so suddenly that I can't be sure he was ever there, save for the half-full soda can and the torch that lights the space. And that I'm down here at all.
I race to the exit as fast as I can on shoes that were intended for style rather than function, peer through into the darkness, trying to ignore the shadowy rustling that suggests rats and roaches. There is no sign of him. He cannot have vanished so quickly – but he is gone.
As if he never was.