Tortured, assaulted, caged like animals, six gay men in their twenties free after being held captive for weeks.
Raymond Vargas seized the newspaper off the hospital tray, balled it up, and thrust the entire thing into the bottom drawer of the cabinet beside him. No way was he leaving that lying around.
Fucking media. The headlines weren’t holding back on the horrors.
As if he needed the reminder. As if he could ever forget. Every single one of those men had innocently walked inside his club, some paid for the privilege to do so, and found themselves in hell instead.
He refocused his attention on the monitor across the hospital bed. At four in the morning, his neck and back were aching like hell, but he made no move to get up. He just kept staring at those blinking green numbers.
Two whispering voices seeped in through the room’s open doorway. Their words were indecipherable, but they still punctuated the quiet of the late hour. The heart rate on the monitor fluctuated. Vargas straightened in the chair, his total focus on the rising digits until they halted their climb. When it was clear the result wasn’t enough to cause concern, he relaxed and bent forward in the chair again, returning to his earlier position with his elbows propped on his thighs.
He’d asked the nurses plenty of times what the various digits on the display meant, as well as their standard healthy ranges. He was getting good at scanning that screen for signs of trouble.
Another minute ticked by. Another.
An alarm went off.
No reason to panic. The IV fluids had simply run out.
Only, the nurse was taking too long this time, and the repetitious bleeping was far too loud. He clenched his hand into a fist to keep from pounding on the IV stand before the jarring sound could awaken the man in the bed.
With that thought, Vargas forced himself to look at the younger man’s face, at the cut and bruised flesh, the purple and yellow battered skin around his eyes, the multitude of tubes and monitors he was hooked up to, recording his heart, lung, and kidney functions.
Seth Fisher’s body was healing, but he almost looked worse than the first night. It took one hell of a beating to fuck a man up like that.
One of the regular nurses from the night shift entered through the curtain-covered doorway. Vargas shot her a quick glance but then went back to keeping vigil on the monitor’s blinking numbers.
She was a tiny woman. At least a foot shorter than his six-foot-two frame. And maybe twenty-eight years old. Not that it mattered. When you were forty-three, everyone in their twenties was young.
She was also his favorite nurse. Sweet and pleasant. Full of the information he craved. She’d softly chat while she worked, giving him an update on Seth and his progress, on what the surgical and trauma doctors had noted during their previous visits with him. She never acted like she expected Vargas to contribute anything to the conversation, or get upset with him for not offering a word of thanks.
Right then, though, she didn’t say anything as she stood at the foot of the bed.
Without looking away from the monitor, he said, “Don’t make me leave.”
She sighed heavily, a hint of humor in the sound. “Do I ever?” Stepping up to the IV stand on the other side of the bed, she began changing the bag of fluids. In a hushed whisper, she added, “He’s really doing well. He should be moving to a regular room tomorrow.”
Vargas let his eyes fall shut at her words. When the surge of relief had passed, he opened them again.
From across the bed, the nurse glanced over her shoulder. “Which also means I think you could take a night off and sleep in your own bed.”
He gave her a half-hearted grin but otherwise stayed focused on Seth’s heart rate.
“I don’t know how you run a business on no sleep.” She checked the IV where it was connected to Seth. “They said some of his friends came by to see him earlier today.”
Vargas grunted an approving sound.
“He was in good spirits during their visit. Sat up for a while and ate some solid food.” Finished with the IV, she returned to the foot of the bed where she lifted the blanket and examined the pneumatic compression stocking that helped to prevent blood clots on the leg without the cast. She readjusted the sock. Even without looking directly at what she was doing, there was no missing the severely bruised flesh of Seth’s bare leg above that sock.
She settled the blanket over him again. “But he still won’t talk to anyone.”
Vargas squeezed his eyes shut once more and remained silent. She didn’t deserve his anger. It was hardly her fault.
She moved to the head of the bed and eyed Seth’s face, then tenderly brushed the dark hair off his forehead. “I think once he’s home and he starts regular therapy, he’ll be okay. He’s a very strong young man.”
Twenty-five years old, and he’d spent the past couple of weeks fighting for his life. Broken forearm and shinbone, fractured kneecap, ruptured spleen, collapsed lung, cracked ribs, and two herniated discs in his lower back. There were multiple, simultaneous operations. Screws and pins were put in place, his spleen removed. A team of doctors and surgeons from various departments were involved in his case: trauma, orthopedics, urology, plastics, respiratory, neurology.
The consensus was that his attacker had used some kind of hefty metal pipe, but the police never recovered anything of the sort.
Did it matter? The damage was done.
The trauma to his head and the resulting intracranial pressure, as well as the internal bleeding from the ruptured spleen, had concerned everyone. His condition had been rocky at first, but the swelling in his brain rapidly subsided, and there was no lasting damage. The surgeries to remove his spleen and fix his broken leg and kneecap had some complications too, but the repairs were successful, and Seth had awoken in no time.
To Vargas, all that meant one thing: Seth was a hell of a fighter.
Now came the long process of healing and rehabilitation. And not just for his body, but also the emotional trauma of being held captive for weeks by a sick, sadistic psychopath.
The nurse retrieved a wand from her mobile computer stand and returned to Seth. She carefully uncovered the arm without the cast. The bruises there were worse than on his legs. There were also numerous gouged and slashed areas all along that arm.
Vargas glanced down at himself. He had his white dress shirt rolled up to his elbows. His forearms were accented with several black tattoos. Various words and phrases. Some in cursive. Others in bold block letters. The newest one was on his left arm. The ink started at the crook of his elbow and continued down his forearm, stopping at his wrist.
The nurse scanned Seth’s ID bracelet and then gingerly covered his arm again. She paused, her focus now on Vargas. “I need to wake him, so he can take his oral meds.”
Vargas stood, removing his hand from the back of Seth’s. With that move, the nurse threw him an exasperated look. He ignored her, rounded the bed, and kept on going.
“Why won’t you let him see you? Why won’t you talk to him?”
He stopped in the doorway. Despite the fact that he’d only ever had one brief conversation with Seth when he interviewed him for membership at the Haven, he was certain Seth would recognize him. He spoke without facing the room. “He doesn’t need the reminder.”
She scoffed. “You think after everything that happened to him, he can forget any of it? Forget that he was abducted from the club you own? Forget that someone left him there for dead?”
Vargas turned his head. She had a gentle, understanding expression in her eyes, and in that moment, he liked her even more. She said what no one else wanted to admit to him. That Seth Fisher would never be the same carefree young man he’d been before he walked into the Haven that last night.
She came forward. “Not one single family member comes to see him. Not his mother. Or his father. He has maybe three or four friends who show up. Seems to me he can use all the support he can get.” She paused, her eyes scanning his. “He knows you’re here every night. He might start talking if you spoke to him.”
Vargas shot a quick glance at Seth. A healthy, vibrant young man before he’d been taken. Significantly shorter then Vargas with a slight build, but fit and toned. Lying in that bed, he looked frail, broken in more ways than just his visible physical injuries. No one should have to go through what he had, but someone that young, with his whole life ahead of him…
Vargas spun away again. “I’m sure he has nothing to say to me.” Reluctantly he gave another look at the newest tattoo on his forearm. You only fail when you stop trying.
Breathing deep, he forced out the words, “Maybe tomorrow night.” Without waiting for her response, he left.
Crossing the open area of the trauma ICU, he strode for the coffee cart situated in the far corner. Several nurses and ancillary staff members were seated at the main desk, and each smiled at him. He didn’t have it in him to attempt a return of the polite gesture.
At the cart, he filled a paper cup with coffee and swallowed a gulp. It was room temperature and tasted like ash, but he needed the caffeine to stay awake.
The first night he’d been there, he had nodded off. Until Seth started moaning in his sleep. Unwilling to sit by and do nothing, Vargas placed a hand on the back of Seth’s, below where the cast ended, too afraid to touch his other hand where his fingers were purple and swollen like they’d been twisted in a vise.
With that simple contact, Seth awoke. He rolled his head to the side and just lay there, breathing heavily, staring at Vargas for several achingly long breaths, his eyes harboring a haunted expression Vargas almost couldn’t bear. But no way was he going to look away. He ran the pad of his thumb over Seth’s skin in a comforting stroke.
Eventually Seth lowered his eyelids and drifted off to sleep again.
The next night, the same thing.
After that, Vargas made a point of keeping contact with Seth throughout the night, touching the back of his hand or the lone patch of skin on his other forearm that had no bruises or cuts.
Since then, no more nightmares. Seth would sleep through the night. For whatever reason, knowing he wasn’t alone, even subconsciously, was necessary for him.
That had settled it. From then on Vargas sat next to that hospital bed night after night, his hand on Seth’s, his focus locked on those fluctuating numbers displaying Seth’s heart rate and blood pressure.
Seeing him immobile in that bed, his body beaten and broken, the bruises and cuts covering his flesh too numerous to count was bad enough. Hearing those terrified murmurs as he became trapped in another nightmare… Vargas couldn’t take that again.
If it helped having someone there while Seth slept, even the slightest bit, he was going to do it. Because there was no denying his part in what happened to Seth and the others.
It had been his club—a membership-only club at that—where they’d been targeted by that demented son of a bitch.
He ditched the cup on the coffee cart and jammed a hand into his pocket. He removed his cell and hit speed dial.
The man answered on the first ring. “Yeah?”
“No. Lights have been off since midnight.”
“He didn’t meet with anyone earlier? Make any calls?”
“Dammit. Someone hired him, and I want to know who. Now.”
“We’ll find out. There has to be a paper trail somewhere. Just give Tucker time to figure it out.”
Vargas sighed. “All right. Stay on him. You let me or Tucker know the minute you see something out of the ordinary.”
He hung up and crammed his phone back into his pocket, feeling more agitated and frustrated than before the call. He needed to calm down. The team of investigators Tucker had put together was top-notch. They’d uncover who hired the attorney. And why.
A few minutes later the nurse exited Seth’s room and came to Vargas. “He fell right back to sleep.”
Vargas gave a nod and swallowed the last of the burnt coffee. He waited a bit longer and then returned to the room.
As soon as he was seated beside the bed, Seth’s eyes flew open. His chest rose and fell with the rapid pants pouring out of him. He didn’t blink, didn’t make a sound. Something was different this time. He stared straight through Vargas as if he didn’t see him and was lost to another time and the unspeakable things that happened to him there.
Vargas leaned forward and reached for Seth’s hand. That time the gesture did nothing to calm him. Vargas had to do something to help. Anything.
“It’s okay. You’re safe now.”
Seth blinked in rapid succession as if Vargas’s voice had brought him out of the far-off place he’d gone. He searched Vargas’s eyes. Maybe he saw the truth in them. Or felt it in the touch between them. His breathing slowed, and he nodded.
It was the first time Vargas had spoken to him.
He wanted to tell Seth how sorry he was for what had happened to him, how shitty he felt that he hadn’t done more to keep him safe at the Haven. But it wasn’t the time for any of that.
Instead he asked, “You remember me?”
Seth nodded again. Then his gaze darted around the room as if he couldn’t shake the nightmare, or recall where he was.
“Hey, it’s okay. You’re in the hospital. You’re safe here.”
“You’re going to be okay. I’m going to make sure of it.”
Seth parted his lips. “Where—” He cut off and swallowed.
Vargas leaned in closer. “Yeah? What do you need?”
“He’s doing fine. He’s still with Walter and Kevin.” Vargas knew Seth’s friends had already told him about his dog and where he was staying. “They’re taking good care of him.” He hesitated, unsure if he should offer more. “I’d keep him with me, but I’m not home much right now.” He didn’t elaborate.
“He knows you’re here every night.”
“I stopped by to see him this morning.” He pulled out his phone and clicked on the screen a few times. He held it out for Seth to see, swiping through the photos of the yellow Labrador. “They said he’s eating good and getting lots of exercise.”
Seth had met the two men who’d taken in his dog, but he hadn’t talked to either yet, the same way he’d been with everyone who entered his hospital room, including all the nurses and doctors.
Except that wasn’t true anymore. Seth was talking now.
Vargas didn’t want to break the connection. “They said every night after they get home, he just sits and stares at the door, like he’s waiting for you to pick him up. I told him it wouldn’t be long and you’d be coming to get him.”
Seth kept his gaze on the image of the dog that filled the phone’s screen. “What—” He cleared his throat and tried again. “What happened to them?”
“Who?” Vargas lowered the phone. “Dylan and the others?” He didn’t need to clarify. The others were the men who’d been kidnapped and held captive right alongside Seth.
Seth gave a slight shake of his head. “Dylan and Aaron came to see me.” He licked his cracked lips.
“Here. Have some water.” Vargas reached for the cup on the bedside tray. He held the straw to his lips.
Seth lifted his head and took two slow sips. “Thanks.” He laid his head on the pillow again, closing his eyes. When he opened them he said, “I meant the one who took me. And the other one who…” He glanced down his body. “Did this.”
The detectives on the case had been there to interview Seth multiple times. They’d asked him a slew of questions and waited in vain for him to fill them in on what had happened to him. When it became clear he wasn’t going to talk anytime soon, they indicated they’d return when he felt better. Vargas assumed that before they left, they had offered Seth some details of their own. Seemed logical enough. What was it they said about assumptions?
“No one’s told you?”
Seth shook his head.
“Maybe that’s for the best. Until you’re out of here.” Until he was stronger.
“No.” He rolled his head Vargas’s way. “I need to know.”
Those whispered words, the pleading look…
Vargas returned the cup to the tray. “All right.”
Where to start?
Seth was asking about Prescott and Henderson. After Prescott had kidnapped the six men from Vargas’s club—using a series of secret tunnels hidden under the Haven—he kept them locked in cages inside the basement of a nearby building. Then he tortured and assaulted them. Henderson, a corrupt cop and childhood friend of Prescott’s, found the men there. Rather than rescuing them, he chose to frame someone else by taking Seth from his cage and beating him nearly to death.
“Henderson, the cop,” Vargas began. For the next several minutes Seth stared at the far wall of the room, barely breathing, barely blinking, as Vargas explained how the cop and his father had originally hired Prescott to harass Vargas so he’d sell them the club. Only Prescott also decided to kidnap the men. Then Vargas told him about the search for the missing men and how Prescott had strangled Henderson in retaliation for Seth’s beating.
Vargas ended with, “So there’s no reason for you to worry about Henderson ever hurting you again. He’s gone.”
“And the other one? The one who—” Seth broke off. He was talking about Prescott. The one who’d started everything by gaining Seth’s trust, drugging him, and locking him in a cage.
“He’s in jail. Kevin and Walter found him in the basement next door to the club. He was shot, and the cops arrested him for the murder of Henderson, multiple counts of abduction, and a slew of other charges.” Like rape and assault, but Seth didn’t need to hear those words right then.
The psychologist Vargas had hired for Seth who specialized in the treatment of trauma and PTSD in victims of violence and sexual assault had told Vargas it was important to repeat words of comfort and reassurance.
“He’s in jail, and he’s going to stay there.”
The doc had also told him that at some point there’d be many things Seth would need to talk about again and again. Repeated conversations about the ordeal he’d lived through could help minimize his post-traumatic stress. Vargas didn’t want to think about how those conversations would go.
“Did he…” Seth’s voice cracked with the words. He coughed. Vargas got him another sip of water. Then Seth spoke with more resolve. “Did he tell them what he did to me, to the others?”
Vargas opened his mouth, but he had no idea what to say. He desperately wished he’d thought to ask the psychologist what he should respond with to questions like this so early in Seth’s recovery. He just hadn’t even considered he’d be the first person Seth would choose to speak to.
Seth looked his way again. “I need—” He breathed deep like it was taking every last ounce of his energy to get the words out. “I need to know the truth.”
“Okay.” Vargas leaned forward, getting closer than he’d done up to that point. Then it hit him what he was doing: invading Seth’s personal space. He drew up short. With all the examinations, the tests, the doctors and nurses and techs poking and prodding him at all hours—not to mention being held against his will in a cage by a depraved son of a bitch—Seth would need to feel like he had some control left, that he had some say in who got close to him.
So Vargas held still. How the hell was he supposed to say this?
He carefully watched Seth, hoping if he focused on him hard enough, he’d be able to tell when the time had come for him to shut the fuck up, that what he was saying was too much for Seth.
“Prescott’s claiming he’s innocent. He’s likely going to plead not guilty. He said he was defending himself against Henderson, that he wasn’t intending to strangle him. He said it was the cop who attacked him.”
Seth seemed to be processing that. “What else?”
“Why don’t we talk about this later?”
“No.” There was determined strength in those wide brown eyes staring back at Vargas. “Please.”
“Prescott said you went with him voluntarily. That all six of you did. That it was a BDSM thing. You agreed to stay with him in the cages and let him do whatever he wanted to you in exchange for room and board and… his attention, his affection.”
Seth gaped at him. “Do they believe him?”
“No. No one does.”
Seth was quiet for another minute. “What’ll happen now?”
“It’ll probably go to trial.”
“Will I have to testify?”
“I don’t know. I’m guessing that’ll depend on what the prosecutor thinks they need to make their case.” The lawyer working for Prescott was one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the country, but Vargas kept that thought to himself.
The panicked looked on Seth’s face had Vargas taking a chance. He leaned forward and covered Seth’s hand with his like he did when he slept. “The trial isn’t anything that’ll happen right away. And he might end up making a deal.”
“Try not to think about it right now. Just focus on healing.” Vargas silently winced. Nice choice of words. Was there any way someone could heal from what Seth had lived through?
And with that, Vargas knew…
He’d visit every day, repeat whatever words Seth needed to hear, and when Seth got out of the hospital, he’d take him to his PT appointments and fetch his groceries and whatever else he needed. He’d help him get strong and walk again.
No matter how long it took, he would help Seth Fisher move past this.
For a long moment, Seth just stared up at him as if he was trying to memorize Vargas’s face or commit something else to memory. Then he lowered his eyelids.
“Try to get some rest.”
Seth’s eyes shot open. He clasped on to Vargas’s hand. “Please don’t leave.”
Stunned, Vargas swallowed down the flood of emotion and held Seth’s hand in return. “I’m not going anywhere.”
* * * * *
Porter Logan Prescott III lay on his bunk in the jail cell, his eyes closed, his injured body hurting, and his heart aching for what he’d lost. He tried to drown out the frustrated voices of the criminals in the other cells around him, the flushing of toilets, and the squeak of the shoes the guards wore. He tried to ignore the scent of putrid body odor and mildew mixed with the harsh astringent of industrial strength cleaning products. He tried to pretend he was somewhere else.
With someone else.
Thinking about his boys in his life again was the only way he could tolerate the miserable loneliness and lack of control he now had to suffer through. The only thing that made the long days tolerable.
So he let himself float back to one night in particular.
* * * * *
He set his empty glass on the desk beside the bottle of scotch, stood, and opened the door. The room he entered had plenty of space for the cleaning area, his workbench, and the four-poster bed. The dank walls and floors were a nice touch. Gave the place a dungeon feel that went well with the leather, the tools, and the metal cages lining the back wall.
It had taken him three weeks to prepare the space, move his equipment there, and construct the cells. The cages were a necessity. He didn’t want them trying to return to their old lives before they realized how much better their futures were going to be with him.
Truthfully, seeing his boys waiting for him in their cages gave him a thrill of power little else matched. He alone had taken control of what they needed.
He’d miss this room when they had to leave, but he knew better than to count on things. Tangible items could be destroyed, burned. The place and the toys he used were not his priority. The naked men inside the cages were.
He wouldn’t abandon them.
He stepped to his workbench, peeled back the black case’s covering, and ran the tips of his fingers along the neat row of steel, arranged by blade length and width. The smell of the leather case and the feel of the polished metal under his fingers urged him on.
As did the whimpers of anticipation behind him.
He picked up the gold key chain with the dog’s picture. A yellow Lab. He actually felt bad about the dog, wished he could bring him here. But dogs made messes and barked. Too big of a risk when he’d be gone. Instead he’d give the boy the key chain to keep with him in his cage. He’d promised the boy if he was good during their next session, he’d let him have it.
He usually didn’t like them to keep anything from their old lives. They needed to be cleansed of that filthy existence, but he never went back on a promise.
Another whimper came from behind him.
This one sure liked to make noise. Which was why he kept coming back to him more than the others. He sounded lovely, begging and crying out, letting Prescott hear everything he felt.
Now the boy was spread-eagle on the bed, wrists and ankles lashed to the four posts. His eyes were huge, watching him.
He liked when they watched.
He set the knife on the bed on one side of the boy, the key chain with the dog’s photo on the other.
A voice rang out from behind him. “No matter what you do, we’ll never be yours.”
That was the newest one. Dylan. He talked a lot, even when inside his cage.
“Be quiet. It’s not your turn.”
“Someone will find us.”
The boy on the bed shook now. Prescott leaned down to him. “Don’t listen to him. He lies.”
“Seth, don’t listen to him. Listen to me. I’m Dylan, remember? We talked last night in the dark. We are going to get out of here. Just listen to my voice and hang on.”
The boy on the bed glanced toward the voice and nodded. He looked innocent, lost.
His protector would find him. “I know what you need.”
“Seth, listen to my voice. We’re going to live. Do you hear me? Just hang on. Someone will find us.”
The boy nodded again, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“We’re going to go home. You just have to be strong until then. Just hang on. I promise we’re going home.”
No, they would never leave him.
Prescott kissed his boy’s cheek and buried his nose in the skin of his neck. He smelled of sweat and fear. He smelled alive.
Seth shivered under his touch.
“That’s it. I like that. Time for a treat.” He showed him the knife, then released one of his boy’s arms from the restraints and pinned it to the mattress alongside his body. Seth didn’t fight him. “Such a good boy.” Prescott placed the blade against the flesh of his upper arm. “Don’t hold back. Let me hear you.” He pressed down on the knife.
The beautiful screaming began.
* * * * *
Prescott sighed as he rolled onto his side. God, he missed that sound.
He missed Seth.
He missed all of them.
To keep the despair at bay, he pulled to memory the message his attorney had given to him at their first meeting: “No matter what, you’ll never spend your life in prison. He has a plan to get you out.”
Those simple words offered him the hope he needed to keep going. As did thoughts of what he’d do the minute he was free, where he’d go, and who he’d collect first.
He’d never leave without him.
He could do this.
Seth Fisher clutched the armrests of his wheelchair in both hands and pushed himself to a standing position. He shuffled his feet until they were firmly planted under him, and then he reached for the cane he’d propped against the wheelchair.
Not wanting to give himself time to rethink his plan, he didn’t delay. Gripping the cane, he took a step toward the apartment door. Pain shot through his lower back and then his leg, and his thigh muscles burned with the added weight. The arm with the cane shook.
Why was this so hard for him? It wasn’t like he used the wheelchair all the time anymore. For the past few weeks he’d only been using it when he left the apartment, and only because he was too afraid he’d trip and pull something with just the cane. He didn’t want to think about how helpless he’d feel if he fell in front of anyone. When he was at home for long stretches, he stored the wheelchair in his closet, but anytime he attempted walking toward the door like he was going out using only the cane, his body would betray him.
Just like today.
He held still, taking several deep breaths. He forced himself to get moving again. Two steps and he had to stop once more. At the rate he was going, he wouldn’t even come close to completing this test before Dylan was done in the shower.
But he couldn’t—wouldn’t—turn back now.
He put another foot forward. Then another.
Finally he got close enough he could reach for the dead bolt lock. He got the door unlocked without any issue. Despite that success, his hand fell to his side. He took another deep breath, hoping that alone would calm the all-too-familiar fear.
The breathing wasn’t helping. Panic welled in his chest. He tried to raise his arm, but he couldn’t make a move. He stared at the closed door before him. The hope that he’d finally be able to do this on his own for the first time in two years began to slip away.
Then came that voice whispering in his ear, the feel of a heavy sweat-soaked body pressing down on him.
“You’re mine. You’ll always be mine. I will always be a part of you. Forever.”
No. “Fuck you, asshole. You’re not taking my entire life from me.” Surging forward, Seth cranked the doorknob and tugged the door open wide.
The dim, narrow hallway loomed before him. Beads of sweat formed across his brow. He tried again to slow his breathing using the technique Dr. Arteaga had taught him. Deep breath in through his nose, down to his belly. Out through his mouth. In. Out. In. Out.
Leaning forward, he scanned the hall in both directions. He could see nearly all the way to the stairwell on the left, as well as to the right where the hall turned a corner and led to the elevator and another set of stairs. The entire hallway was empty.
He moved his cane forward and crossed the threshold. When his feet were planted on the hall carpet, he stopped and waited for more of the intense panic to grab hold of him. Oddly there was nothing that time.
He shot a look back into the apartment behind him. The sound of music floated out from Dylan’s bedroom. With the thumping music on and the shower running, not to mention the low roll of thunder from the approaching storm outside, Dylan wouldn’t hear him holler for help. Which was why now was the perfect time for this. It wouldn’t be much of a test if Seth had too many opportunities to call in reinforcements.
Which was also why he’d left his cell phone behind. He had to see if he could do this on his own.
He shut the apartment door and locked it, an action both he and Dylan always insisted on. He pocketed his keys and took a single stride away, using the cane for assistance. He held still once more.
Was this too much?
Did he really need to do this right now?
“I know what you need. You need to cry, scream, let it all out. Let me hear you.”
He was doing this.
He had to do this.
He forced that menacing voice from his mind and started forward again. The earlier pain and panic had subsided. Nothing but determination surged through him.
It was time. He was ready for this.
He took another step, then another, the momentum building with each foot forward. He kept on going, gaining confidence the farther he made it and the more apartment doorways he passed by.
He paused again and glanced back in the direction of his place. He was halfway down the hall. Had he really gone that far?
A sharp crack of thunder tore through the hallway. Seth jumped. His heartbeat kicked up a notch, and sweat trickled down his temples.
Then came the faint, heavy thud of footsteps. From the direction of the elevator hidden around the corner at the end of the hall.
Seth sucked in a sharp breath and held it.
He was being stupid. He knew it. Other people lived in the building. Someone was usually always headed somewhere. He just couldn’t stop the reaction.
All at once the chipped, painted surfaces of the hall walls began to ripple like they were flags blowing in the wind. They closed in around him. His heart felt like it was racing too hard and too fast. His throat tightened, and his legs shook. Then his field of vision shrank as the footfalls grew louder.
He couldn’t move. Either forward or back. He clutched his cane tighter and laid his free hand against the closest wall to steady himself.
He thought he was ready. Thought it had been long enough. Thought he could talk himself through the fear.
But now… he had to get back to the apartment before whoever was coming got any closer. Or before he passed out right there in the hallway.
Without taking his eyes off the far end of the hall, he backtracked a couple of steps. Just then a man rounded the corner.
Not just any man. Not a neighbor. Not a random visitor.
It was Prescott.
Prescott didn’t. His eyes locked with Seth’s, and he started forward faster. “Stay right there. I’m coming.”
That voice. Seth would never forget that vile, raspy sound. In none of his previous panic attacks had he ever heard that voice out loud.
This wasn’t his imagination.
This time, it was Prescott.
Seth had been right all along. No sentencing, no prison, no lack of parole opportunities could ever keep that man from coming for him, from wanting to lock him away again.
Prescott picked up the pace. He held up a hand. “Don’t move.”
Don’t move? Seth needed to run. He needed to do something. Anything. God, he couldn’t just stand there and let this happen to him again.
“You’re such a good boy. Stay right there. I’m coming. I’m not leaving you behind.”
Seth scrambled backward, tripping over the end of his cane. He landed on his hip with a thud, the cane sprawling out of his reach. Without more than a split-second hesitation, he shifted onto his hands and knees and lunged forward. Pain shot through his left knee. He got a hold of the cane and dragged it toward him. Using the cane for leverage, he pushed to his feet. As soon as he was standing, he rushed forward, heading toward his apartment door, limping but moving faster than he’d ever done in his physical therapy or at any other time since he’d last tried to get away from this man.
The footsteps drew closer, louder, more forceful.
Seth kept on going. He shoved a hand into his pocket for his keys and finagled the ring out as he traversed the last few steps.
When he reached the apartment door, he heard Prescott’s heavy breathing behind him.
Then he felt it on the back of his neck.
He fumbled with the keys as he tried to get the door unlocked. A hand brushed across his right shoulder in a soft caress. Then the hand grabbed hold of him.
Seth swung the apartment door open and stumbled inside, whipping around to shove the door closed at the same time. Only…
There was no one there. The hall outside the apartment was empty.
A different voice called out for him.
“Seth, you okay?” His neighbor Ryder appeared in the doorway, out of breath and sporting a concerned expression. As soon as he caught sight of Seth, he held up a hand in a non-threatening gesture that signaled he wasn’t a danger to him. “What happened?”
Seth braced himself on his cane with one hand and the doorjamb with the other. Ryder stepped back and gave him room as Seth leaned forward and glanced both ways down the hall.
No one was there.
He’d imagined the entire thing, maybe putting Prescott’s face in place of Ryder’s. He’d never done anything like that before.
He shook his head when he realized Ryder was intently studying him. “I’m okay. It was nothing.”
“You sure? You look freaked as hell, man. Did you try leaving the apartment by yourself?”
Alarm spread across Ryder’s face.
“I only made it halfway down the hall. Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want. Next time you need to go somewhere just shoot me a text. I’ll be right over.”
“I will.” Seth wanted to tell Ryder how much that meant, but he didn’t want to embarrass him. Ryder was still a kid in many ways, albeit a massive kid. Whenever Seth went anywhere with him, it was clear that a lot of people passing them on the street mistook Ryder for stupid or slow, or a criminal or a gang member, but those assessments were ridiculous. Evidence that judgmental, racist assholes were alive and well throughout the world. Ryder didn’t deserve that shit. He was nothing but honest and compassionate. A bighearted high schooler who loved video games, his grandma, and Seth’s dog Charlie.
“Here.” Ryder held out a covered casserole dish. “Grandma made extra last night.”
She always did. Georgia and Ryder never failed to make Seth feel like he had a family. “Tell her I said thanks.” He set the dish on the hall table beside the door.
“Sure. You need me to take Charlie out?”
“Nah. Dylan’s here.”
“Okay. Guess I gotta get going, then.” Ryder took a step away from the door, then halted. “You let me know if you wanna try leaving alone again. If you really gotta do it by yourself, I can always wait inside the apartment. You can call me if you get stuck or something.”
“That’s a deal. Thanks, Ryder.”
The kid shrugged, then gave another long assessing look at Seth.
Even without that examination, it was obvious Ryder worried about him. A lot. Especially once he’d found out that, without a spleen, Seth was more likely to get sick or develop serious infections. Seth hated that Ryder had any anxiety because of him.
“I’m okay. Really.”
“All right, man. See you tomorrow.” Ryder offered a nod in goodbye and then took off down the hall toward his place.
When he was out of earshot, Seth slammed the door shut and slapped his free hand against it. “Fuck.” He couldn’t ignore that he needed a teenager’s help to walk down the damn hall of his apartment building.
The last time he’d attempted leaving the apartment alone, it had been bad, but nothing like what he just went through. How the hell had his mind played that kind of fucked-up trick on him? And why was his reaction to heading out alone even worse than months earlier? After all the talking with Dr. Arteaga, all the exposure therapy and anxiety management, why did he seem worse all of a sudden?
He spun around and sank back against the door, dropping his cane in the process. He swiped the moisture from his eyes with the back of his hand. He would not cry.
He banged his head on the wood surface behind him in frustration. Then he did it again for good measure.
Dylan’s voice rang out. “Seth?”
Seth gave his eyes another swipe.
Dylan appeared at the end of the hall. “You okay?”
How many times would he have to answer that question before people no longer took one a look at him and felt compelled to ask?
He tried for another one of Dr. Arteaga’s calming breaths, and then he carefully bent sideways and reached for the cane where it had landed propped against the hall table. The action sent a twinge shooting across his lower back. He did his best to ignore it. “Just dropped my cane.” He held it up so Dylan could see he’d gotten hold of the cane again.
No way did he want anyone else knowing that he’d had another panic attack, not after all this time. And not just any attack. The worst one yet. If Dylan found that out, he’d never leave him alone that night.
And Seth needed him to.
Because no matter what had just happened in the hall, he was going to make it through one night alone in the apartment for the first time since he’d come home from the hospital.
He wouldn’t fail again.
Continued in How to Heal a Life (The Haven Book 2) by Sloan Parker
© Sloan Parker, 2017. All Rights Reserved