The maze of dark, overcrowded, stinky alleyways seemed endless, and Vy guessed they’d never find their way out again without a guide. But the hall guard seemed uninterested in communication. It had a job to do, and apparently that was all it cared to do.
Lynn seemed like she wanted to say something. Several times, she opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to change her mind. The loss of her son must weigh heavily on her.
Privately, Vy wondered if Ariock had enough emotional fortitude to survive among alien strangers. She was his age, but she had a wealth of experiences that he’d never had. Volunteer work with inner city kids, and awkward after-school clubs, and hospital work. She’d seen blood and death up close. Ariock hadn’t left his mansion in ten years.
On the other hand, he should be easy to find. He would stand out even among bizarre aliens. “I think we’ll find Ariock,” Vy said.
“I’ve never lost track of him.” Lynn slouched, hands in her pockets. “There’s never been a time where I didn’t know where he was.”
Vy had one reassuring thought, which was that Ariock would cooperate with whatever the Torth wanted him to do and therefore have a chance at survival. But that was as much insult as reassurance. Never mind his impressive scuffle with the guards; Vy suspected that was a one-time fluke, triggered because he’d seen his mother directly threatened. Ariock had soon given up and gone into that cage, docile like an obedient slave.
“I can’t figure out why the Torth put him in chains,” Lynn said. “You’ll never meet a kinder person. If the Torth can read minds, they must know that about him.”
“It is strange,” Vy agreed.
“He doesn’t even like violent video-games,” Lynn said. “The thought of harming someone would never even cross his mind.”
Vy zipped up her parka and breathed through the fabric, trying to filter out the stench of the tunnel. “Thomas liked him, and I’d trust his opinion over a zillion Torth.”
“Yeah.” Lynn sounded reluctant. “I think Thomas understood Ariock right away. He nailed it. Ariock thinks too little of himself, and that’s his biggest flaw.”
They trudged for a while, listening to the babble of alien voices. Vy pretended not to notice the hostile stares. She was increasingly aware of her clothing, her hair, her overall Torth-like appearance. She almost wished that her slave collar would start glowing, just to emphasize her slave status. Maybe she needed to start wearing tattered rags.
“There’s something you need to know about me,” Lynn said.
The solemnity of her tone caught Vy’s attention. She glanced at the older woman.
“Pancreatic cancer.” Lynn touched her midsection. “I have less than six months to live.”
Vy didn’t want to believe it. She hoped it was a tasteless joke. But when she met Lynn’s gaze, she saw resignation. “Oh, no.” Now she understood why Lynn was so quick to give up on life. “Oh. I’m so sorry.”
Cherise turned to look at Lynn with concern. “Sorry,” she said in her quiet voice.
Vy didn’t like how many alien slaves were noticing them. “Does Ariock know?” she asked, just to keep the conversation going.
“No.” Lynn hung her head. “I figured I had enough time to tell him.” Her bitter tone made it clear that she no longer believed that.
“You still do.” Vy hoped that was more than an empty reassurance. “We’ll find him.”
“I’ve been in and out of St. Andrew’s Hospital for months,” Lynn said. “Each time, I combined it with a shopping trip, so Ariock figured I’d been shopping, but I think he was starting to suspect. He noticed that I’ve lost weight. And I’d been busier than usual. I was making . . . well . . . final preparations.”
“Oh, Lynn.” Vy didn’t need to mention that she worked at St. Andrew’s, caring for terminal cancer patients. Lynn had already asked her a few questions about her job.
“I didn’t know how to tell him.” Lynn sounded defensive, as if someone had accused her. “He’s lost so much. You have no idea. Everyone he knows is gone or dead, except for me.”
“I’m so sorry.” Vy took her hand and squeezed it. “Have you been dealing with this alone?”
“Of course. It’s not like I go to social events these days.”
Vy winced at her own thoughtlessness. The pale skin around Lynn’s finger was evidence of a wedding band, now gone, stolen by Torth. She must be a widow. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m used to being alone,” Lynn stated. “I lived in the Dovanack mansion for thirty-plus years, and it felt isolated even when I was happily married and employing a household staff.” She gave Vy a wry glance. “I didn’t grow up rich.” Her accent broadened. “Southside of Boston, here.” She went back to a more normal accent. “I got a scholarship to Stanford, and that’s where I met Will Dovanack. He was . . .” She shook her head, and Vy saw traces of love. “Like me. He didn’t fit in. It was like he was ashamed of his wealth. Ashamed of his family, it turned out.” Her burdened look told Vy that there was good reason for that shame. “He couldn’t escape his parents without turning his back on a fortune and going penniless. He nearly did, anyway. But his father died that winter . . . committed suicide . . . and Will was the glue holding together the rest of his dysfunctional family.” She shrugged. “I stuck with him. “
All of Vy’s foster siblings came from dysfunctional families. None were wealthy, but she’d always figured that rich families were better able to bury their skeletons. They could afford to sweep away the ramifications of whatever crimes they committed.
“In some ways, the deaths were a blessing,” Lynn said. “Will’s mother hated my pregnancy, and she hated Ariock as soon as he was born. She had nightmares that he would kill millions of people.” Lynn sounded sickened. “Crazy, right?”
“That’s terrible,” Vy said. “Why would she think that?”
“She was insane,” Lynn said. “Really superstitious, and paranoid beyond reason. That whole side of the family believed crazy things.” She shook her head. “She claimed that he would grow into a giant. That was weirdly accurate. But she thought he would be the kind of giant that kills people. So insane.”
Vy thought of Ariock knocking away the guard creatures.
“We kept her away from Ariock,” Lynn went on. “Will eventually had her committed to a mental hospital. That was hard for him to do.” She touched her missing wedding ring. “I wish Ariock could have gotten to know his father.”
Vy internally erased the negative thoughts she’d had about Ariock’s mother. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Why did you keep Ariock sequestered away from the world?”
When Lynn looked ashamed, Vy hurriedly added, “I don’t mean to sound judgmental. I think you had a lot to deal with.”
“I wanted him to go to school,” Lynn said. “But . . . oh, well. You might as well know. No reason to keep secrets here.” She tugged her cardigan closer, like a protective shawl. “Ariock tried to kill himself. I made him promise to never do it again, but I can tell that he thinks about it a lot.”
Vy glanced at her, wondering how she could tell.
“I’m not a mind reader,” Lynn said, defensive. “I’m a mother.”
“And you thought keeping him at home was the best way to keep him alive?” Vy tried to sound understanding. They needed to worry about their futures, not their pasts, as the hall guard led them through dimly lit curving tunnels.
“My household assistant posted photos of him on Instagram and stuff,” Lynn said. “She thought it was funny. I didn’t want Ariock to go through anything like that again, and you know how mean kids can be towards each other. He was terrified to go to school. But . . . you’re right.” She sounded anguished. “I thought I was protecting him. He thanked me for it. But he has no idea that I’m going to die.”
“I’m sorry,” Vy said.
“I’ve been desperate for him to meet someone else. I mean, desperate. He needs someone to be there for him, when I’m gone.” She touched Vy’s arm. “That’s why I let you into the house.”
“What?” Vy tried to understand.
Lynn said quickly, “I realize I wasn’t welcoming. The way you showed up was strange, and it had me worried about your motives. But when I saw you interact with Ariock, I relaxed. He likes you. All three of you.” She included Cherise in her nod. “You made me see a future for him.”
The hall guard ducked into a narrower tunnel. Cherise followed, leading Vy and Lynn.
“Your surprise visit was actually perfect,” Lynn said. “I kept trying to hire a housecleaner, or an assistant, but Ariock was terrified to meet anyone.” She seemed to reconsider her words. “Not because he’s ashamed of his body. At least, that’s not the whole reason. It’s because so many people in his life have died. He thinks people will either hurt him, or they’ll die and leave him forever.”
The guard’s shoulder spikes scraped along the steely walls, except where uneven doorways opened into darkness. Its bare feet splashed through puddles that stank like sewage. Vy tried not to gag, and tried not to identify the wet piles here and there.
“I’m completely lost,” Lynn said. “I wasn’t paying attention to how we got here.”
“Me neither.” Vy had the crawly sense that creatures were peering at her from doorways on both sides of the tunnel, sizing her up.
“If we need to go back,” Cherise said, “I remember the way.”
Back home, Cherise always faded into the background. Now she stood out like a beacon of familiarity. Vy swallowed a lump of gratitude in her throat. “Thank you.”
Up ahead, the hall guard shuffled to a stop. It assessed them with its beady eyes, then swept its head towards a crude doorway, like an invitation to enter.
“No.” Lynn backed away. “We don’t know what’s in there.”
Cherise walked towards the doorway, avoiding a puddle of filth. “The hall guard probably has to make sure we enter,” she said. “I think that’s its job. We shouldn’t try to escape until we know the rules of this place.”
Lynn kept eying the dark doorways, with their crude, uneven angles. “What if this place has no rules?”
“Then it will be like living with my Ma,” Cherise said. “But I got away. Thomas will figure something out. We just have to survive until then.”
Vy wondered if she could have done anything more to protect Thomas. She should have tried harder, and she was determined not to make that mistake again. So she leaned close to Cherise and peered through the doorway with her.
Aliens filled the cave-like room like soldiers in a barracks, sitting on grimy shelves. Every face looked malevolent. Even the midget-sized aliens seemed ready to tear the humans apart with beaks or claws.
Vy backpedaled. “Thomas save us,” she said, as if it was a prayer. She couldn’t imagine ever feeling safe again.