Thunder rumbled in the distance, followed by a downpour of rain that battered the orphanage windows. Max had just shut off the lights after settling the boys in for the night and plodded back to his office for a drink. All was quiet and calm. He savored such moments to collect his thoughts in the dark. It was rare he ever got time alone, so he made sure to make the most of it. A gas lamp burned dim on the edge of his desk, illuminating the soft amber of his whiskey bottle. The shadows were soft, yet sharp. For a few minutes at least, he could relax and pretend that everything was good, that all the boys under his watch were happy and the Dispatchers never bothered them. He liked to imagine, too, that Quentin was somewhere safe in a warm bed with not a care in the world. It was certainly easier than facing the truth of things.
He poured himself a shot and creaked back in his chair, staring at the fractals of light as they swayed over the ceiling. Perhaps Quentin had been adopted by a wealthy family. Yes, that was it. And the rest of the boys who had left with Lucien, maybe they, too, were taken into good homes by eager parents in the Metropolies. Living the good, privileged life, sheltered from all manner of danger. Proper schooling, career opportunities, dating and courtship, marriage, the whole bit. No losses, only wins. Not a care in the world. A loud knock came on the door, tearing Max out of his fantasy.
“Bugger!” the elder snapped through clenched teeth. It was nearly midnight. Who the hell would be visiting at this hour? Hushed groans emanated from the hall of boys across the way. Max set down his shot glass and rose up from the chair, strapping on the phase unit he kept on the ledge just in case. “Quiet,” he called. He headed for the door as Bernard stood watch over everyone. Another several knocks came, followed by furious banging. The elder closed his eyes and sparked up the phase unit. He twisted the locks on the door, cautiously reaching for the knob as his heart began to pound. In one swift motion, he swung the door open and prepared for the worst. A strong breeze splattered his face with rain as he squinted at the boy before him.
“Tomas?!” He extended his palm outward, illuminating the face of the child in a soft blue glow. Dried blood and bruises covered the length of his soaked, naked body from head to toe. The boy shivered in the cold as he cupped his genitals.
“Please let me back, Max!” the boy sobbed.
“Jesus Christ, come inside! Bernard, fetch some blankets right away!”
“I’m on it.”
The elder shut the door and led the child into his office to sit him down in the chair. Bernard returned promptly, draping a duvet and several blankets over him. Max turned up the gas lamp and set it at his feet for extra warmth and proceeded to dry the boy’s hair with a towel. As he worked his way down over Tomas’s shoulders and over his chest, the boy winced in pain.
“Careful around the burn!” he cried.
“Burn…” Max peeled the top of the blanket down to reveal a dark red, bubbling brand mark surrounded by dried blood in the shape of the letter ‘O’ on his chest. His heart began to thud in rage. “What happened? Who the hell did this to you?!”
“Dispatchers caught me with Isaac…”
“Why the hell would you fuck with Isaac?!” Max demanded. “Are you stupid?”
“Max,” Bernard shook his head. “Don’t.” The elder ignored him.
“You realize how much danger you’ve put us all in?”
“I’m sorry, I love him, okay?!” Tomas cried.
“For fuck’s sake.” Max grabbed his whiskey and poured shots for them both. “This should help ease the pain a bit. I was having a nice quiet time pretending all was well before you arrived. Lovely evening we’re having. I certainly hope your little tryst was worth it…sorry.” He handed Tomas the shot, and the boy gulped it down. “Now what happened?”
“We were having sex,” he shivered. Max rolled his eyes. “A squad of Dispatchers broke down the door and surrounded us…they took Isaac off the bed and made him watch as they held me down and branded me, then dragged him off. Afterward, they took me to the alley and threw me down, started kicking me all over…then one of them, he…” The boy started crying again.
“He did what?”
“Nothing, it doesn’t matter…I got away. Around the corner, not far,” the boy gulped. “They chased after me and I thought I’d be done for. They saw me…or they should have, I don’t know. They looked in my direction, but…it was like they didn’t see me, like I wasn’t even there. I noticed a damaged wooden crate lying out on the street that must have fallen off a truck. It was full of these pretty necklaces, so I took one.” Tomas reached under the blankets and produced a silver chain which held a pendant of a winged figure plunging his sword into a rock.
“Looks like a Dalishkova prayer amulet,” Bernard remarked, taking the object in his hand to examine the back. “Says something in Greek.”
“Give it here,” Max said. He had little experience with the language himself, though he did his best to translate. “Salt God, protect me from mine enemies…I don’t know the rest. You said you found a whole crate of these things?”
“Yeah,” Tomas shivered. “I knew I had to get away, and for a second, I imagined what it would be like if I was invisible. That’s when I found them.”
“Strange,” Max thought aloud. “It’s a good bet these are illegal. A Dalishkova presence in Cavarice would mean trouble for the Dispatchers. Did anyone see you come back here? They had to have, if you were walking naked up the street.”
The boy shook his head. “I just kept believing I wouldn’t be seen. No one bothered me.”
“The Dispatchers who did this to you, did you recognize them?”
“Antoine branded me,” Tomas whimpered. “He said I meant nothing to Isaac, that he’s been with plenty of boys. I loved him! I thought I was special!” he cried. The memory was clearly causing him more pain than whatever torture he had endured. Max knelt down and set his hands on his shoulders to comfort the boy.
“You are special, Tomas.”
“No I’m not!”
“Yes…you are. Look at me, all right? No one else can mod a phase unit like you. You taught us how to operate them, figured out how they work. When the power goes out in this place, you know how to fix it. Bernard and me, we’re not electricians. You have a brilliant mind and you know how to handle yourself in a fight. We couldn’t survive here without you.”
“I should have been stronger for Isaac, but I froze!” Tomas wept. “Why did I do that?! I never do that, I’m never afraid!”
“It happens to the best of us. Even when I was selling the parts to Mordechai this morning and Igor showed up, I didn’t know what to do. I cowered in the corner. Things happen and you’re caught off guard. It doesn’t mean you’re weak.”
“I should have killed them!” the boy snapped. “I want to kill them. Every last one of them should pay!”
“And they will,” Max assured him. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll head to the precinct. You need to make a statement about what happened-”
“Fuck the statement!” Tomas cut him off, rising from the chair. “Where’s my phase unit?! I have to go back out there and finish what I should have done!” The boy snatched his prayer amulet off the table and threw off the blankets, plodding nude toward the main hall. Max followed.
“Tomas, you’re in no condition to-”
“I don’t care!” the boy whirled around. “I have to save Isaac, if he’s even still alive. I lost the only person I love tonight! Doesn’t that matter to you?!”
“Of course it matters! But we have to be practical about this. Igor is still out there planning god-knows-what, and the last thing I need right now is to lose another boy on my watch. You matter to me too.” Several of the boys had woken up and stood behind him now, watching curiously from behind the door frame. Great, the elder thought. What is this, a mutiny?
“You’re pathetic, Max. Don’t wonder why I joined Lucien, because at least he lets me take action. Maybe that’s why I was scared. I’m too used to your leadership. Funny how you judge the upper class for what they do, yet you trust the Dispatchers to just handle everything?”
“That’s not true.”
“I don’t have time to argue,” Tomas shook his head, choking back tears. “I’m leaving.” He continued on to the back of the main boys’ hall as the elder followed with Bernard. A small metal rack sat near the fireplace at the far end to dry an assortment of clothes they’d brought back earlier from the laundromat. Tomas picked out what he needed and started getting dressed. Max weighed his next words carefully, considering all the boy had been through. Of all the places he could have chosen to go—and there were plenty—he still picked Barreau in the end over Lucien. Even if his allegiances were shaky, it was clear he preferred the familiar.
“You came here for a reason,” Max crossed his arms. “You asked to come back.”
“Look, I’m not going to stop you from leaving, all right? But if you do want to stay, my rule is that you get some rest tonight. Can you do that?”
“Yes. I’m sorry,” Tomas sat down to bury his face in his hands. He had managed to pull a pair of trousers halfway up his legs. Max helped him with the rest and put an arm over his bare shoulder, hugging him close. Louis snuggled up on his other side.
“It’s okay. You’ve been through enough for one day. We’ll figure everything out tomorrow, I promise.”
Several of the other boys crawled out of bed to join them in a semicircle around the fire while the storm continued to rage outside. Torrents of rain cascaded over the roof, bringing a relaxing ambience to the room. As the flames danced over the wood and Bernard brought out a few more blankets for everyone before plopping down with them, Max closed his eyes. Moments like this made it all worth it. And though none of them had any family left to speak of, it was enough they took care of their own. It was enough to honor Quentin.