Read an Excerpt
The good news is I think I broke my leg.
The bad news is I don’t know if anyone at school would ever believe how it happened. Or worse, if no one ever figures out how I got here.
It’s getting cold now and I don’t do so hot when I get cold. Ha! I made a funny. Emma would have laughed at that one. I wish she were here right now. Well, not really. I’m glad she’s not. She’s safe, at home where she’s warm and not somewhere so moldy and smelly. And dark. I just meant I wish I could tell her my story. She’s not only the fastest at listening to me with her ‘five finger’ method, but she’d also understand why I think it’s so cool that I broke my leg, even though Mom would be sad and Dad would be worried.
Emma didn’t listen to me yesterday. Maybe if she had, I wouldn’t be in this pickle. That’s what my dad calls a sticky situation. A pickle. Makes me laugh, the way he says it. My foot keeps sliding on the ground beneath me like I’m standing on a slippery pickle, which helps me forget about the pain in my other leg. And the whimpering beneath the pile of clothes nearby. But now I can barely hear the whimpering. And my ears keep plugging up because I can’t stop wrinkling my nose at the rotten smell. Not like pickles. Worse. But I try to listen. Listening is important, especially for a spy like me.
My little sister didn’t listen to me because she was distracted. Not because she was mad or anything. That’s the word my mom always uses for Emma when she’s too busy to spend time with me. Distracted. Being it was Christmas and knowing how hard it is for me to focus on anything but Santa this time of year, my mom might be right.
But normally she’s not. Not about Emma being too distracted when it comes to me. I know better.
Emma has a life, too. It shouldn’t always be about me. We’ve talked about that. Emma and me. When Mom and Dad aren’t around. Well, not really talked. More like Emma talks for the both of us. But at least she’s honest about what I’m trying to say even if she disagrees and she gets it right more than she gets it wrong.
Pretty good for a nine-year-old whose older brother is trapped in his own body.
Let me back up because I think I’m getting ahead of myself. Story of my life. Getting ahead of myself. It’s my destiny, considering my mind is constantly outpacing my body.
I’m twelve, almost a teenager. I’m in the same grade as my little sister, Emma, who’s nine. Mainstreamed. I was born premature and weighed less than two pounds.
I have severe cerebral palsy.
My brain works like any other kid in my grade. Maybe better, according to one of my doctors, since the gray matter seems to be the only part of my anatomy that works normally. Nothing else seems to. My mind tells my hand to move or my mouth to open, but for some reason, the signal gets lost somewhere along the way. My body won’t cooperate. My stomach doesn’t work so good with food going in or all that other stuff coming out. I have trouble swallowing. And I overheard a teacher say that an older kid with cerebral palsy died of a heart attack in her class a few years ago. My hearing is better than people think, although my sight isn’t so great. When I was born so early, I had to be on oxygen therapy so I have only a little view from one eye and see only shadows from the other. Unless I have my contact in. Then I can see great. Like a bionic eye.
I can’t run.
I can’t walk.
I can’t even crawl.
If I work at it – concentrate really hard – I can roll over on my own. But sometimes I pin my arm beneath my body and it starts tingling really bad. And sometimes when I flip over I land on my nose, which makes my eyes water and my contact lens pop out. Then I’m nearly blind again.
My muscles stay all bunched up and tight. Contracted muscles, is what the adults say when they talk. But they also talk about contracting a disease, which I know I don’t have, or signing a contract, which I couldn’t do even if I wanted to. So it’s just easier to talk about muscles being bunched up. At least that’s how Emma describes it. So I do, too.
One time, a specialist warned my parents that my contracted muscles would someday shorten so much that bones in my wrists and arms would break. My mom covered my ears, but it was too late. I heard her scolding the specialist as my dad wheeled me out to the waiting room. She asked him what he was thinking and why he felt it was his place to share such adult conversations in front of me. And I heard her remind them I wasn’t deaf. And that I was just a kid.
But I heard it all the same. And I’ve felt my muscles getting tighter – can almost hear them growing shorter – wondering when my bones will snap like twigs. SNAP! SNAP! I never dreamed I’d be lucky enough to have my first broken bone from such an exciting event like tonight. Or last night. It might be after midnight. I can’t tell what time it is anymore. And as I grow colder, the only thing that runs through my head is that awful bedtime prayer about ‘if I should die before I wake’. Emma said one of the kids at school told her about the ‘old’ version of our parents’ bedtime prayer and how she’d been scared of the line. Couldn’t sleep since it kept playing over and over in her mind. But she ‘pinky swore’ with me that we wouldn’t tell Mom.
So if I should die before I wake – and I am hoping I eventually fall asleep so I can forget about the cold for a little while – I know I will die happy, knowing I broke my leg doing the best I could to protect the boy who was kidnapped, the one from TV that everyone’s talking about.
I don’t want to die.
I want to live.
And after thinking about my life after hours of sniffles and tears in the dark, I can honestly say I tried my hardest to save the little boy.
Now it was up to Auntie Liv to find me. To save the day.
I’ve decided to call this my rainy day. Mom always told Emma and me to save up for a rainy day so I’ve saved up all my hopes and prayers for today. I’ve prayed hard several times that God let Auntie Liv figure out my story. The story I’ve been trying to tell all day.
Since Christmas morning.
In the darkness, all I’ve wanted as the night grew colder and darker, is to find a sliver of sunlight, something that would bring me hope. And in the dark, I found thankfulness for what my parents told me about my birth. They said when they laid eyes on me they understood how Noah must have felt seeing that first ray of sunshine after forty days and nights of rain.
And if I had to be honest, I’m scared. Really, really scared.
And it feels like I’m trapped in the rainiest of all days.
My name is Noah.
Wall to wall people. Everyone was too busy to notice one another, let alone him.
A tinny version of ‘Jingle Bells’ scraped through the airport speaker system. Occasional reminders that the airport allowed no-smoking punctuated the obnoxious and too frequent warnings that floated up the escalator from the floor below that the train was arriving and to please stand clear of the doors to allow for passengers unloading before boarding.
He hated the holidays. The loneliness. Everyone besides him, so happy.
Tugging the blue vest that had ridden up over his expansive belly, he pushed the empty candy wrapper with his broom and watched the crowd scurrying about through the main terminal. He kept a careful eye on the smallest of holiday travelers, particularly those whose parents made detours to the nearby restrooms.
Just one. He only needed one.
The frayed candy wrapper had tumbled across every inch of the tiled floor over the past three hours, backtracking over this particular section at least a dozen times. The same wrapper. Companion to the sentinel line of dust gathered by the push broom. The wrapper that once contained his breakfast. A breakfast of champions. The wrapper that never quite made it from the floor to the garbage can, despite his diligence and effort to sweep it away.
No one noticed.
No one ever noticed the janitor. The simple disguise was his favorite, like an invisible cape. He could have chosen scrubs, a park ranger outfit, a construction vest, or a security guard’s shirt and cap and gone somewhere else. But nothing was more effective than pretending to be a janitor.
And he needed today to go well.
He was nervous enough as it was, forced to try again. He had vowed to himself it was over. Never again. Especially after what happened last year. He couldn’t afford to lose another one. Couldn’t afford to choose unwisely. Couldn’t afford to make a mistake. But he knew it was the right thing to do. For them. Even if no one had come for him when he was a child.
He needed to give a child the best Christmas gift ever given another human being. A better life. With him.
So above all else, today he needed to be at his best.
A janitor. Invisible. No indecision this morning as he rifled through the choices in his basement. Today he needed to be expedient and effective. He needed a win. Not even those who legitimately worked at the airport would notice him especially since he had no intentions of going anywhere near the watchful eyes of the TSA at security screening. If they realized his blue vest wasn’t quite the same color as theirs or that his name badge wasn’t quite the same size, they may ask DIA employees if they recognized him, reveal him as an imposter.
That wouldn’t do.
So he’d linger between the entrances of ticketing near short-term parking and the security screening area just above the escalators leading to the trains below. In the main terminal rimming the restricted rope-lines leading to security, crowded with travelers awaiting security checks before heading toward the concourses, there were plenty of shops and restaurants for those awaiting arriving passengers.
Plenty of bathrooms.
On the occasions when he could no longer resist his duty to help free a child from their situation, his cover as a janitor had been his most successful to date. Particularly in crowded public places. At the Rockies stadium. At Larimer Square. At Cherry Creek Mall. His past experiences helped bolster his confidence this morning, along with the good fortune in finding an open parking spot right near the door in short-term parking. Yards from the door nearest a family bathroom that could lock from the inside.
As he sat in his parked car hours ago, readying himself by tugging on the blue vest over his coveralls and slipping on the glasses with the white tape wrapped around the plastic between the lens, he noticed the glean of excitement in his eyes. And the angle of the nearest camera mounted on the concrete wall nearby. Busted lens. A good omen. He would succeed today, he had thought. And this would be the last time. He’d get it right. Prove his father wrong. Possibly in record time.
But he hadn’t expected it to take this long. And his confidence had dwindled, his anxiety growing. Only his resolve to help those who suffered as he had as a child, propelled him to keep looking. And the idea of being successful on Christmas Eve further motivated him.
Holidays sucked. Christmas was the worst. Too many people. Too many smiles. Too many packages being tenderly carried to their rightful places under countless trees. Didn’t he deserve a little something under the tree this year?
Yes. Of course. That was why he was here. Patience. Patience and discretion.
The longer he remained huddled against the wall, the more likely someone would notice his ineffectual labors. But he was safe here. Under the overhang, away from the cameras’ ranges. He escaped his cover being blown thirty minutes ago when he was over by the food court beyond the ticketing counters. Only feet from where he stood, pushing his broom in the shadows, some old bat dropped her bag of popcorn in her awkward attempt to rise from a dining table. Several travelers glared in his direction as they stepped over the puddled popcorn. They acted as if it were a minefield and as if he planted those mines. He pretended not to notice the commotion. He turned his back as he pushed the candy wrapper in the opposite direction, away from the food court where he’d be expected to work a real line of food wrappers.
He wore his navy blue stocking cap, pulled down on his forehead. His thick black-rimmed glasses bound with a strip of duct tape across the bridge, obscured much of his face and certainly his eyes from being recognized. And the pretense of limited peripheral vision was complete. Believable. The earpieces of his headphones were jammed deep within his protruding ears, which gave him the excuse to ignore their demands for his services. Just to be on the safe side, he meandered toward the bank of restrooms, hugging the wall under the overhang and pushing the tumbling candy wrapper.
But he was safe agai. Invisible. Just a janitor. A janitor gripping his broom. A shiver dragged along his spine. Gripping a broom. A child’s grip. In the closet. The closet filled with mops and brooms. Locked. Where his father kept him. Where he imagined growing up to be a janitor. Pretending, just to keep his mind off the darkness. And loneliness. In a way, his father was to thank for this clever disguise, he supposed. Especially since as an adult, he had so many to choose from compared to the three sets of identical uniforms his father allowed him to wear throughout his childhood. Blue denim husky dungarees, white beefy T’s, and a crisp, white button-down shirt. Might as well have been wearing a ‘kick me’ sign to school.
His stomach growled.
It had been too long since he last ate and he simply hadn’t eaten enough when he did. His large, doughy fingers uncurled from the broom handle and made their way between the ties of his blue vest into his olive drab jumpsuit pocket. Just as his fingertips reached the edge of the king-size package of peanut M&M’s, he saw him.
Like a camouflaged hunter spotting a trophy elk in his scope, his movements were slow and deliberate. He eased the candy from his pocket without making a sound while he studied his prey.
A tall, lanky man wearing a BlueSky Airlines uniform was walking – more like prancing – off the escalator dumping arriving passengers from the underground trains shuttling people to and from the concourses. The man headed toward the Buckhorn Bar and Grill. The bar was across from his safe haven under the overhang by the restrooms. Just on the other side. Less than thirty yards away.
The airline employee carried himself as if tethered to electric volts, all jitters and nerves hidden by a phony smile he plastered on his face. ‘Skip’ made a beeline toward a perturbed woman standing just beyond the row of barstools separating the restaurant from the main terminal. She didn’t look happy. Her fists were planted on her hips. Her foot was tapping. Her eyes hard.
Perfect. A lovers’ quarrel between ‘Skip’ and ‘Thumper’. No better distraction.
As the airline employee approached, he gave the irritated woman a quick peck on the cheek and leapt into a long, animated explanation of whatever it was that had irritated the jilted, foot-tapping, ball-fisted lover awaiting him outside the bar. It was not important what the two lovers were so worked up about on this otherwise peaceful Christmas Eve. What was important is that Santa had not forgotten him this year. His Christmas gift had just arrived.
Delivered by ‘Skip’, one of Santa’s elves.
A boy. A beautiful, blond boy. A sad boy who needed him. Like a puppy from the pound. He’d save him.
‘Skip’ had long since released the little boy’s hand. The little boy was lingering beside the quarrelling couple, circling around the area. Just beyond the bar, on the edge of the heavy pedestrian traffic ebbing and flowing through the main terminal from the ticketing area to security and from the underground trains to the baggage claim areas. Dressed in a beautiful, hunter green Christmas outfit, the boy danced and pounced about, oblivious to the tide of travelers. Oblivious to ‘Skip’, his distracted escort. Oblivious to ‘Thumper’s’ fury. Oblivious to the invisible janitor across from the bar who fixated on his every movement.
He spied the airline wings pinned to the little boy’s vest lapel to confirm his assumption. It explained ‘Skip’ and his inattention of the boy. The child was traveling alone, from one place to another and just passing through Denver International Airport.
He closed the distance between him and the boy, careful to stay close to the wall yet out of the spatting lover’s peripheral vision. He stood between the boy and the small family bathroom, nestled between the expansive bathrooms dedicated to men and women only. The family bathroom, an oversized stall with locking door intended for mothers and fathers to help their young, offered him privacy.
Pushing the small line of gray dust and the well-traveled candy wrapper toward the door, he felt the weight of his concealed backpack against the small of his back, under his blue vest, and smiled. Opening the door, he set the broom just inside and turned back toward the child. He rattled the bag of M&M’s. The child looked up. And stopped dancing.
The child saw the bright yellow bag and a dimpled grin spread across his smooth, white cheeks. After cutting a quick glance in his escort’s direction, the boy tiptoed toward the man with the bag of candy.
‘What Child Is This?’ was playing overhead, he scanned the airport before he ducked, unseen into the bathroom with the bag of M&M’s.
And the boy.