Children of Refuge
Nobody had told me that my parents’ neighborhood was built on top of a secret tunnel up from the creek. So when the man dragged me into an innocuous-looking hole—and kept going and going and going—I instantly wanted to know more. We passed sputtering torches that seemed to throw off more shadows than light. The stench of the man’s hand seemed to grow nastier and nastier. But we were deep underground before he finally eased his hand off my mouth and nose and jaw and I could manage more than grunts.
“What do you mean, you work for my father?” I asked. “Do you mean you used to work for him, but now you’re betraying him by kidnapping his son? Why did you grab me? Where are you taking me? Where does this tunnel lead? How many people know about it?”
Six questions in practically a single breath. I thought that was pretty good considering he’d been restricting my oxygen supply for at least the past ten minutes.
I inhaled deeply and instantly thought of a dozen more questions I wanted to ask. But coming home had taught me that adults who weren’t Freds sometimes reacted badly to questions. And this man definitely wasn’t a peace-loving Fred. Even though he’d stopped acting like he was going to choke or gag me, he’d only shifted the pressure. He wrapped his muscular right arm around my waist again, and he quickly twisted his left arm and hand around to grab and immobilize my hands and feet simultaneously—a neat trick I wanted to figure out how to do myself. The way he was holding me, it kind of felt like he could snap any number of my bones as casually as someone else might shoo away a fly. I decided to wait for a moment and see if he’d answer any of the questions I’d already asked.
“Only way anyone leaves your father’s employment is in a casket,” he said. “He told me to grab you. And this tunnel leads to his secret underground office. That’s where we’re going now. To see him.”
The tunnel curved slightly to the left, and I tried to calculate distances and angles in the near-total darkness. We were going in the direction of my parents’ house, but how far belowground were we?
“Is there some secret stairway down from my house to this tunnel?” I asked. “Why didn’t my parents tell me? It would
have been a much better way for me to sneak out tonight.”
The man did nothing but grunt this time, but it was a disapproving grunt, an annoyed grunt. I had a lifetime of experience irritating adults, but back in Fredtown the adults always tried to hide how much I bothered them. Which was weird, since they were always telling us kids we needed to get in touch with our feelings.
The sporadic lineup of torches on the wall ended, and I could see nothing but darkness ahead. The man was holding me at an angle that prevented me from seeing his face, so I had no warning when he lifted me just enough that he could stab his right elbow repeatedly against the wall—entering some kind of code, maybe?
There was a clanking sound, like a garage door opening. Could garage doors be reinforced? Coated with armor? Whatever it was, it sounded heavy.
The man took five steps forward into the darkness and jabbed his elbow against the wall again. Suddenly electric lights glowed in front of us, a row of single bulbs nestled at even intervals along the rock walls. The clanking sound happened again too. I glanced back and saw a scarred sheet of metal descending from the ceiling behind me. It slammed against the ground, cutting us off from the portion of the tunnel we’d just walked through.
“Are you getting tired of carrying me?” I asked the man.
“You can put me down now. You know even if I wanted to escape, I couldn’t get out. Because of that door.”
“I follow your father’s orders,” the man snarled.
“Do you pick your nose if my father tells you to pick your nose?” I asked. “Would you eat the booger if he said to?”
Okay, I knew that was kind of childish—the Freds said I should have outgrown booger jokes by the time of my twelfth birthday, which was six months ago. But if I wasn’t very mature, it was their fault for raising me in a place where, besides Rosi, every other kid I knew was younger than me. When we could get away from the Freds, all my friends loved booger jokes.
Well, unless you counted Rosi as one of my friends. Which I had kind of started doing again.
The man carrying me didn’t scold, but he didn’t laugh, either.
“I follow your father’s orders,” he repeated, and squeezed a little harder against my ribs.
If I were goody-goody, well-behaved, perfect Rosi instead of my usual grown-up-defying, rude-joke-making, wouldn’t-be-serious self, could I have won this man over? Could I have gotten him to put me down?
It was starting to scare me that he was holding on so tight.
My mind flashed back to Rosi again. I had convinced her to come out into the dangerous darkness with me because
I’d wanted to show her a vast area of burned-out, abandoned homes that puzzled me. I hadn’t counted on men showing up there to meet in secret—men who chased after us when we accidentally made a noise. Surely there hadn’t been yet another scary man waiting in the darkness to grab her, like there had been for me. The man clutching my ribs worked for my dad; it didn’t seem likely that a similar man might work for her father. It didn’t follow the rules of—what was it the Freds were always trying to teach me? Oh yeah: logic.
And Rosi had to have gotten away from the scary men who were chasing us, because I was making all the noise, and she was creeping away in silence. Rosi was so much better at being quiet than I was. She was better at everything the Freds valued.
The man carrying me stopped in front of a door. Even as he kept a firm grip on me, he rapped his knuckles against the door three times.
“Send him in.” It was my father’s voice, coming from an intercom speaker off to the side.
The door creaked open. In one smooth move the man dumped me on the floor, backed out, and then eased the door shut behind me.
I landed on the floor in a heap, my elbows tangled with my knees.
“Hey, hey, a little dignity here,” I muttered.
At least this floor was carpeted, unlike the bare rock on the other side of the door. I unscrambled my arms and legs and rolled over onto my side, my face still pressed against the rug. I had a great view of dressy black shoes, polished to such a high sheen that I could practically see my face reflected in the toe tips.
I sat up, facing my father.
“What was that all about?” I demanded.
For a moment my father just stared at me. The Freds always said it didn’t matter what you looked like, only what you did. Let’s review:
Tonight my father ordered some guy who works for him to grab me, carry me down a dark tunnel, and drop me on the floor.
Earlier today my father punished me for asking questions.
Before yesterday I’d never seen my father in my life, unless maybe it was the day I was born. He never contacted me even once.
So, yeah. I wouldn’t have given him a very good score on the doing.
But the way my dad looked? I hoped I would look like that when I grow up. He had this perfect bald head, his scalp so smooth you’d think his skin was made out of polished rock: Obsidian? Onyx? Jet stone? (Though maybe he wasn’t actually bald. Maybe he just had his servants shave his head
that perfectly every day. I hadn’t been around him enough yet to know.) He could make his face look as hard as rock too. And he had this way of raising a single eyebrow that was just as intimidating as someone else flexing a muscle.
He did that now.
“You are not an obedient child,” he said.
“Yeah, well, that’s what the Freds always said,” I told him.
I stood up, rubbing my right elbow where I’d banged it against the floor. Now at least I was more on my father’s level, though I’d have to grow about a dozen centimeters to be able to look at him eye to eye, nose to nose, without tilting my head back. Back in Fredtown I’d been only a few centimeters away from being able to do that with my Fred-dad.
Curiosity got the better of me. It usually did.
“Have you ever met a Fred?” I asked my father. “What did you think of them? From what you saw of them, did you ever wonder—”
“Silence!” my father interrupted, slashing his hand through the air. “I talk; you listen. That’s how this works.”
It was so tempting to say, Sure, if you answer my questions. But my father’s hand had cut so close to my face. And, though I was trying not to think about it, Rosi and I had been running away from a truly scary scene. And I didn’t understand what the men who’d been chasing us wanted. And . . .
“. . . for your safety,” my father said.
“Wait, what?” I asked. “I zoned out a little bit there, and . . .”
“And that is exactly what I mean!” my father said, throwing his hands up in the air. “You don’t listen! You don’t obey! You ask questions you shouldn’t ask!”
I felt a little proud. In just three seconds I’d reduced my father from All-Powerful Boss Who Can Make His Employees Do Anything He Wants to a weak man making the same helpless gesture my Fred-parents occasionally resorted to.
But my father wasn’t finished talking.
“And that is why we are sending you to boarding school,” he said.