By the time the boy neared home, the sun was already sinking toward the snow-dusted ridge of the Bitterroot Mountains. He walked through the meadow slowly, cradling his right hand with his left. The cameraman, dressed all in black, followed the boy like a distant shadow—always present, but unobtrusive. The sound of wood chopping echoed through the valley. When he got closer to the log cabin, the boy paused. He rubbed away the last trace of tears from his eyes and slid his injured hand beneath his sleeve.
As the boy approached, Tom raised and swung his axe in one smooth motion, splitting the log below into two even chunks. The boy stood there, waiting, but Tom said nothing. He set another log on the chopping block, without looking at his son. He had already chopped more than enough wood for the day, but he wanted to teach his son a lesson.
“Sorry I’m late,” Ajay said.
“Sorry doesn’t chop wood.”
The cameraman circled around them with soft, measured steps, adjusting the angle of his shot. They did not pay attention to his movements. After three months of being on the show, of living under near constant observation, they had gotten better at pretending that the cameramen were no more remarkable than dirt.
“I’ll chop twice my share tomorrow,” Ajay said, keeping his arm behind him.
“Where were you?”
“Playing in the foothills. We lost track of time.”
“Don’t let it happen again,” Tom said. He lifted the axe over his shoulder, resting the wooden haft against his neck. “You understand me?”
“Good. Go help your mother with dinner.”
As his son climbed up the steps to their log cabin, Tom’s expression softened. One of the main reasons he’d wanted to be on Homesteaders in the first place was to toughen up his son. The idea of the show was simple: three modern families uproot and live for six months like genuine Montana pioneers. No competition, no reality show scripted fakery, no one-on-one confessions to the cameras—just well-documented rustic living. And it was already doing his son good. Instead of staring at screens all day, his son, his chubby, fourteen-year-old, videogame-addicted son, was now exploring the wilderness, with real friends. The Duke boys were polite and they were athletes—they were not digital avatars. Not zeros and ones. Thanks to the show, Ajay’s face was already less soft, his arms less bat-winged, his skin a darker shade of pale.
Tom heaved the axe, pulling force from deep in his legs. He felt the intense yet simple pleasure of the thing as the log cracked apart and the bit of the blade sank deep into the chopping block. At a physical level, it was better than anything from his normal line of work, selling Audis. This was different—something he felt with his bones. With his newly calloused hands. He stared out at the horizon, at the humbling immensity of the distant mountains, and he listened. He listened to the steady hum of crickets, to the quiet rush of the stream cutting through the woods behind his cabin. He could already smell the rabbit stew being cooked inside. Rabbits he had trapped and skinned himself. Vegetables he had grown on his own land.
When he got back inside the cabin, Helen was kneeling in front of their son, examining his broken finger. The pinky, snapped at its base, stuck outward from his hand, the flesh swollen and blue.
“What the hell?” Tom said.
“Ouch,” Tom said. “Why didn’t you say something?”
Before Ajay could answer, Helen hugged the boy against her chest. She brushed her hand through his curly hair, petting the back of his head. Tom started toward them, then stopped.
She hugged Ajay tighter, pressing her cheek to his. To Tom, her features had always seemed suited to sorrow. Her cheekbones, her eyes, her slender strength, all gave her a particular kind of beauty. A melancholy grace. Her long blonde hair had paled from the long hours under the sun.
The cameraman stooped down beside her, aiming the camera to get a better close up of the tender moment. Breaking the show’s rules, Helen sneered, staring directly at the cameraman in disgust. She rose to her feet, purposefully blocking the cameraman’s view, and walked to the makeshift kitchen, where she pulled out a jug of moonshine whiskey. She poured a trickle into a mason jar and then stirred in a long pour of honey with a spoon. When she offered it to Ajay, he drank it down, choking a little at the whiskey’s fire.
“This is what it takes for you guys to let me drink?” he said, smiling sadly. He held up his pinky for them both to see.
“That’s the spirit,” Tom said, laughing. He patted Ajay on the back. “Nothing a little white lightning can’t cure.”
“Very funny,” she said. “We need to get it checked out by a doctor.”
Tom examined the pinky more closely, touching it gently. Ajay winced.
“I think he’ll be okay,” Tom said. “I bet we can fix it.”
“Oh, you bet?” she said. “What if you’re wrong?”
The cameraman backed away quietly into the corner of the cabin, establishing a more panoramic view. Helen stepped in front of him and tapped her finger against the eye of the lens.
“Can you leave us alone for one fucking minute?”
The cameramen said nothing. He kept filming.
“Come on, he’s just doing his job,” Tom said. “We should fix this ourselves. That’s the whole point of the show.”
“Bullshit,” she said.
They argued. They argued about the rules of the show and what counted as an emergency—what was worth breaking the rules over and what was not. They argued about how thorough the show’s brief medical training session had been, and then whether the original Montana homesteaders would or would not have made use of a modern doctor, if one had been available. Then they argued about who was trying to argue and who was not. While they argued, Ajay stared at his broken finger, then down at the floor.
Finally, exhausted, Helen let Tom have his way. He whittled down two splint sticks out of kindling and she found the cloth bolt and a cord of twine. She ripped off a length of cloth with quiet fury.
When they forced the finger back straight, Ajay cried silently, shuddering at the pain. They sandwiched his finger between the splint sticks, set it tightly against the buddy finger with cloth, and then wrapped it all together. Helen hugged Ajay again.
“It’s okay, Sweetie,” she said. “It’s over.”
It might not have been perfect, Tom thought, but at least they had fixed it on their own. Back home, they would have rushed Ajay to the hospital, waited an hour, and paid a doctor an arm and a leg to tell them, in Latin, that his son had broken his pinky. And the doctor would have done the exact same thing, except with gauze and tape and metal.
Although Tom tried to ignore the cameras, he couldn’t help but think of all the families that were watching them. In his mind’s eye, he pictured their little domestic drama multiplied on screens across America, across the world. All those families would be watching them, their faces lit up by the flickering light of their TVs, marveling at how far he and his family had come, how self-reliant they now were, after only a few months of simulated frontier living. He pictured the images of himself, replicating endlessly.
“You did great,” Tom said to Ajay, patting his head. “Very brave.”
He approached his wife from behind and laid his hands on her shoulders, feeling the smoothness of the thin fabric of her dress, as he began to lightly massage the knots from her shoulders. “You must admit,” he said, “we did pretty good.”
She shrugged away from him. She pulled the steaming copper pot of stew off of the woodstove and set it down hard on the table.
Late that night, Tom awoke to find that Helen was not in bed. The room was dark. He drew the warm blanket up around him against the cold. Because the cabin was only one big room, they had set up a curtain to separate it into two private sleeping areas. Ajay snored gently from beyond the other side of the curtain.
When Helen did not return after several minutes, Tom got out of bed. He pulled his jacket over his bare skin and made his way through the cabin, careful not to wake his son. He smelled the pipe tobacco before he saw her. He peered out the window and watched her taking puffs from the corncob pipe, her blonde hair ghostly white in the light of the low hanging moon.
When he joined her on the porch, neither of them spoke. He sank into the rocking chair next to hers, pulling his jacket tighter around him, scrunching his bare toes. She stared out over the meadow. The fog had rolled down from the mountains to settle in the valley, where it drifted through the black stalks of grass.
“Sorry about before,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, placing a hand on his knee. “Sorry I scared the cameraman.”
“He was terrified,” he said, laughing gently.
“Maybe he won’t come back.”
“Yeah,” he said. “At least they don’t watch us sleep, right?”
“Small mercy,” she said quietly.
After taking another puff, she passed him the pipe. He took a few deep, slow inhales of the sweet, aromatic smoke and the embers in the bowl crackled and glowed with each draw of breath. It reminded him of when they were first dating, when they’d smoke cigarettes on the fire escape of her apartment in Los Feliz, even though neither of them really smoked. The way they would sit and talk and stare out at the lights of the restless city. It was their ritual. A thing they did when they were young and their love was simple.
“I’m worried about Ajay,” she said.
“He’ll be fine. We fixed it the same as any doctor.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she said, turning toward him. “Do you really think he broke it falling?”
“That’s what he said.”
“It doesn’t feel right. I think they did this to him,” she said. “Those brothers.”
“Wouldn’t he tell us?”
She hesitated, looking into his eyes, as if she were weighing him in some way.
“He doesn’t want you to think he’s weak.”
They’d argued about this kind of thing before. They had different ideas on how to help Ajay become the person he wanted to become. They’d even argued about the Duke brothers, when Ajay would come home scraped up—whether they played too rough, or were just boys being boys. But there had been problems with bullying before. Never anything that physical, that they knew of, but there had been bullying at his middle school—spit on his shirt, a stolen favorite hat, fat jokes scrawled across his locker.
He didn’t want to believe it. He liked the boys. He’d never seen them complain about anything, even though their mom had died from Leukemia a few years before. He’d encouraged Ajay to become friends with them.
“I’ll talk to Ajay tomorrow,” he said. “And if you’re right, I’ll put an end to it. I promise.”
On the mountains beyond, the moon lit up the white of the snow and the distant stands of trees cast long black shadows. The sky was cloudless, the stars bright. Except for the steady flowing of the unseen stream, all was quiet and still.
In the morning, after all their chores were done, Tom took his son fishing. They gathered up their fly fishing gear—all 1885 Homesteader appropriate—and they set out, following along the shady path of the stream to the river. One cameraman stayed behind at the cabin to watch Helen and the other cameraman followed them along the stream, keeping a respectful distance.
On the way to the river, they passed a point where they could see the Dukes’ cabin, on the other side of the stream. The Dukes’ cabin was a little nicer than theirs—it was bigger, the raw wood was painted, and it had multiple rooms. Smoke poured from the chimney. But no one was outside. Tom watched Ajay closely as they passed by, but his son said nothing.
When they got to their favorite spot, they cast their fishing lines out into the wide, fast-flowing river, the lines snaking elegantly in the air, as if in slow motion. The day was sunny, the air crisp. The trout liked to rest in the deeper pools on the other side of the river, lying near the bottom, so they aimed for the far side. The cameraman, wearing converse high tops, stepped carefully out into the river, wading up to his thighs to get a better shot.
After standing in the icy river for nearly an hour, Ajay got a bite. Tom helped him reel it in, showing him, once again, how to release tension before pulling it in farther, to better exhaust the fish. When Ajay pulled it into the shallows, Tom netted the silvery trout, pulled it out by its wriggling tail, and bashed its head against a rock with a wet slap.
It was only later in the afternoon, after they had caught and gutted a few more fish that Tom started to ask about what had really happened to the pinky. They were lying next to each other, resting in the shade of a tree, their bare feet drying in the grass, when he said that Ajay could, and should, always feel free to tell his parents anything—anything at all. “I know,” Ajay said. Trying a different tactic, Tom asked him how, exactly, he had fallen. Ajay told him he tripped. But when he answered, Tom noticed that Ajay kept glancing toward the camera watching them.
“Hey,” Tom said to the cameraman. “You mind giving us a few minutes?”
The cameraman kept filming.
“Come on, man,” Tom said.
The cameraman lowered his camera, shaking his head. “You guys can’t keep breaking the rules,” he said.
“Just give us a minute.”
The cameraman shook his head as he walked away, muttering something about how the producer was going to flip his shit. They watched him walk back upstream, stumbling slightly on the rocks.
“So what happened?” Tom said.
Ajay twirled the fishhook between his fingers. He looped the fishing line around his index finger, until the tip of the finger whitened.
“We were just messing around. Throwing rocks and stuff. Then Brandon asked if I wanted to join their club. They call themselves the Apaches.”
“He said that to join I had to kill one of the Atkinson’s chickens. He said that nobody would ever know I did it. He told me they both killed one and just made it look like the coyotes got them. I said I wouldn’t do it and they got mad. Brandon made me pinky swear that I wouldn’t tell anyone what they’d done. But when I reached out my pinky, he grabbed it and he—he twisted until it snapped.”
“Jesus,” Tom said.
“He said he didn’t mean to break it. He said sorry.”
“Jesus,” he said again. “That doesn’t matter, Ajay. You can’t let people treat you like that.”
“I know, I just…” Ajay’s voice trailed off and he looked back up the river. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you did nothing wrong,” Tom said. “You did good. You stuck up for what was right.” When he wrapped his arm around his son’s shoulder, Ajay sobbed into his little hands.
When he thought about telling Helen, Tom could picture how it all would go. She’d want to talk it out with the boys, talk it out with their father, talk it out with everyone—maybe even the film crew. She’d want to hear everyone’s side to the story and then come to some diplomatic solution—the brothers would be punished by having a time out and writing an essay about what they had done wrong, or some similar bullshit. And what good would it do?
They had only found out about the bullying after Tom saw Ajay killing the baby sparrows in the back yard. Ajay didn’t know anyone was watching. He was just standing there, staring at the fallen nest, and then he started stomping, over and over, crushing the nest flat. Tom knew it had been a cry for help, but still. The image haunted him. It was only then that Ajay told him about the bullying—the grief and shame he’d been choking back for months.
Tom had wanted to teach Ajay to stand up for himself, like his father had taught him—if someone hits you, hit him back twice as hard. But no. Helen had insisted that Ajay should tell on the bullies so they could sit down with everyone involved. They’d all met in the principal’s office. The bullies formally apologized, they were suspended for a week, and they had to write essays about how bullying was wrong—but this only humiliated Ajay further. Helen meant well, but she knew nothing of this world—boys will never respect a boy that has his mother fight his battles for him.
If they talked it out with the Dukes, Tom could see a repeat of that whole thing. Dave would tell them that his boys were acting out because of the loss of their mother, which was no doubt true. Leukemia was a brutal way to die. But all bullies have sob stories. And Ajay would learn, once again, that instead of dealing with his problems on his own he should go running to Mommy.
As he watched the sun flickering on the surface of the river, Tom felt that this was one of those moments where someone’s life could fork. He could either teach his son how to be scared for the rest of his life, how to be a coward, or he could finally teach his son how a man stands tall.
“We’ll fix this,” he said.
Ajay looked up, his eyes red, and wiped his snotty nose on his forearm. “How?”
Without saying a word, Tom grabbed one of his socks and walked to the river. He scooped up a handful of smooth, wet river stones and poured them into the mouth of the sock. He hefted the sock, testing its weight, and then added a few more stones. He walked back and handed the sock mace to his wide-eyed son.
“Do you know the story of David and Goliath?” he asked.
“You don’t have to be bigger or stronger than your enemy,” he said. “You just have to be smarter.”
Ajay stared at the sock mace like it was a grenade.
“Don’t use this unless it is absolutely necessary,” Tom said. “I mean it. Always try to talk it out. If they call you names, you ignore them. You walk away. Be the bigger man. Always avoid a fight if you possibly can. But if they try to hurt you again, I want you to use that. And use it like you mean it.”
“Ok, Dad,” he said.
“And don’t show it to anyone. Not even Mom. This is our secret.”
Ajay climbed to his feet and started swinging the sock mace, first in a tight, twirling circle around his wrist, then in longer, arcing loops that wooshed through the air, swinging the weapon with his whole arm, slashing down imaginary enemies.
When asked, Tom never lied outright about their talk at the river, he just retold what was said in a way that his wife would understand. He said that the little bastards had been teasing him, it was true, but that the broken finger was an accident—he just tripped when they were chasing him. He told Helen that they talked about ways to stand up for himself, to never let people bully him again, to tell his parents if they tried, that it was always perfectly all right just to walk away. And at first, everything seemed fixed.
Ajay stopped hanging out with the Duke brothers completely. On the day after their talk, Tom was working in the garden when the two of them came over, asking if Ajay wanted to come play. His son walked out and told them, firmly, that he did not want to hangout with them anymore. That he needed to focus on his chores. The brothers had laughed at him, but he didn’t back down.
After that, Ajay began to work harder at his tasks. He became less withdrawn, less afraid—it was as if his secret weapon, although unused, let him access an untapped power inside himself.
In the weeks that followed, he even made friends with Claire, the daughter of the Atkinson family. She was quiet and, admittedly, not exactly a looker, but the two took long walks together and, from what Tom saw, they seemed relaxed and satisfied in sharing one another’s silence. He even caught them holding hands. And as Ajay seemed more and more content, the tensions eased between him and Helen. They argued less and less. On the few nights that they were not too exhausted from their long days, and only when they were sure Ajay was fast asleep, they quietly made love.
When Ajay did not come home for dinner, Helen shouted out his name from the porch, again and again, but there was no reply. They had checked all his usual playing spots around the cabin—the place where the stream pools, the boulders on the far side of the meadow. He was not there. The sun dropped behind the mountains, its afterglow staining the clouds red.
Helen was annoyed. It was not like Ajay to be this disrespectful. A little late, fine, she said, but dinner was getting cold. Tom, hyperconscious of the cameras watching him, said that they really needed to teach that kid some goddamn punctuality. Then he forced a cheerful tone, joking about how maybe Ajay finally kissed Claire and liked it so much he couldn’t stop.
After they waited as long as they could wait, after the sky was blue and darkening fast, they split up to look for him. Helen went to the Atkinson’s, where they both agreed he probably was, and Tom went to look for him at the Dukes’ cabin, just in case. The two cameramen followed them silently as they went their separate ways.
As he approached the Duke’s cabin, Tom paused. Warm light poured from the windows and, from inside, he caught muffled domestic sounds—the clink and clatter of silverware, soft voices. He calmed his breathing. Nothing was wrong. There was no point in worrying until there was something to worry about. He would ask about Ajay, they’d say he wasn’t there, he’d go home, and Ajay would be sitting there at their table, sorry for being late, but safe and sound.
He walked up the steps of their porch and knocked three times. Dave opened the door. He was small and mousy, but always positive, even if it was forced. A doormat kind of guy.
The cameraman filming the Dukes turned his camera on Tom. The cameraman who had been following Tom stayed outside, to avoid them filming each other. Dave asked if Tom would like to care to come inside and sit a spell. To get in the spirit of the original homesteaders, Dave had started faking a Southern accent.
“No, no, that’s okay,” Tom said. “I was just hoping you could help me out.”
“Of course,” Dave said. “Whatcha need, partner?”
Tom was about to explain the situation when he saw Brandon, seated at the table. He had a big, purple bruise swelling over his left eye socket—swollen to the point that it made him look like he was squinting. He had a dirty white sock pulled over his hand. When Brandon caught Tom looking at him, he grinned, waving hello with the sock puppet.
“Well?” Dave said, dropping the accent. “Is everything all right?”
“Yeah,” he said, “Sure. I was just—I’m looking for Ajay.”
“Ajay?” Dave said. “No, haven’t seen him. Have you boys?”
“Nope,” John said. “Haven’t seen him.”
“Me either,” Brandon said.
Tom looked around the cabin. Even though their cabin was bigger than his, it didn’t seem as nice on the inside. Their cabin was bare. Helen had made their own cabin feel like a real home, with pine branches on the windowsills, with makeshift curtains and rugs, with Ajay’s drawings on the walls.
“It’s probably nothing,” Tom said. “He’s probably over at the Atkinson’s place. They’ve been hanging out a lot these days.”
“Sure,” Dave said. “But if he doesn’t turn up, you let me know. I’d be happy to help you look.”
Brandon waited until his father turned around, until the camera was pointed away from him, and then raised his sock puppet hand, twisting it left and right, in convincing mimicry of someone searching for something—looking under the table, looking out the window, looking left and right.
“We’d all be happy to help you,” Brandon said, opening and closing the mouth of the puppet, miming along with his words.
As Helen argued with the cameraman, Tom paced across the cabin, back and forth, over and over. He barely listened to them. He did not speak.
Finally Helen convinced the man to call his producer.
“Hey, yeah, I guess one of the kids is missing,” the cameraman said into the phone. It was the one with the converse high tops. “No, I don’t know, no one was with him. I—”
Helen snatched the phone. “You listen to me,” she said. “No one’s seen my son in hours. I want you to call the police.”
Tom slumped down at the table and put his head between his hands.
The image of Brandon and the sock puppet played in his head like a fever dream. He felt crazy, like he had imagined it. But it was real. And he had been too much of a coward to confront the kid then and there. What could he have said? That Brandon must know something, because of a sock puppet? They’d think he was insane. The camera was watching him. He’d thought of the audience, all those eyes. He had done nothing. He’d nursed his pride, instead of helping his son. He dropped his forehead against the table, half-listening to Helen shout into the phone.
With his head still against the table, Tom stared out the window at the blackness of night. Even with glare from the lantern light, he could make out the dark skyline of the mountains. What he had once seen as pretty scenery, he now saw in its true, sovereign form. This was one of the most untamed parts of Montana. There were black bears and grizzlies out there. There were cougars and wolves. The reality of the savageness of his surroundings sank into him like a blade.
“Ask how long they’ll take to get here,” he said.
She asked, listened to the response, and told him the nearest police station was at least a three-hour drive.
In his mind’s eye he tried to picture the vastness of the landscape surrounding him, spreading outwards in all directions. He felt unspeakably small.
Even when they finally got here, the police would have no idea where to look. They knew nothing about what he knew. They would be useless.
He stood up from the table, pulled on his jacket, and headed for the door.
“What are you doing?” Helen said. “They said we should wait for the police.”
“I’m going to find him.”
As he turned to leave, the cameraman picked up the camera and started filming. When Tom opened the door, the cameraman began to follow him, in quiet, measured steps.
“Don’t fucking follow me,” Tom snapped. “I’m serious.”
When the cameraman kept filming, Tom wrestled the camera out of the man’s hands and threw it down to the floor. Then, with one last look at Helen, he headed out into the dark.
Tom approached the Duke’s cabin and looked for a spot where he could watch the front door while still remaining hidden. He crawled into a thicket of bushes, wriggling through scratchy underbrush on his belly. The glow from the cabin oozed through the windows. The moon was bright.
Within minutes, the front door opened and the cameraman walked outside, talking loudly on his phone. Tom ducked his head down instinctually, but the cameraman couldn’t see a thing.
Tom waited under the bushes, cramped in darkness, for what felt like hours. Worst-case nightmare scenarios ran through his head, image after image, unstoppable. Ajay crying, lost in the woods. Ajay lying broken and bleeding at the bottom of a ravine. Wolves stalking closer, drawn by blood.
The front door opened and Brandon walked outside toward their outhouse. There was a little smile on his face, despite the huge bruise, despite the squinty eye. He whistled to himself as he walked.
As soon as Brandon entered the outhouse and shut the door behind him, Tom slipped off his boots and socks. He stalked toward the outhouse, quickly and quietly, stepping carefully between the twigs and branches, crouching low as he passed through the light from the windows. He eased up against the far side of the outhouse, flattened his body against the wall, and waited, his heart hammering inside his chest.
The door creaked open. As Brandon stepped outside, still adjusting his belt, Tom grabbed him from behind. He swiped his arm around his neck and squeezed. Brandon flailed, trying to punch behind him, but Tom caught his thin wrist and twisted the arm behind his back. When he struggled again, Tom wrenched the arm upward.
“Stop,” he hissed, “Or I’ll break your fucking arm.”
He led the boy away from the house, as quietly as he could, walking backward, feeling out the ground with the soles of his feet, glancing behind him to see where he was going, checking back on the house to make sure no one was following. When they were far enough away, he turned the boy around and forced him to walk before him, still gripping the boy’s arm. He led him down the riverbank into the rocky shallows.
“Tell me where he is,” he said.
Brandon said nothing.
“Tell me,” he said. “I’ll let you go if you tell me now.”
The boy glanced down and stomped his boot onto Tom’s bare toes. Pain tore through Tom’s foot and his grip slipped. The boy pulled himself away and ran. Tom chased him, sloshing through the water, each step agony on the sharp rocks. He reached out and grabbed the boy’s the collar, yanking it, and the boy lurched backward, splashing into the water. When he tried to scramble back to his feet, Tom slapped him across the face as hard as he could. The boy crumpled to his hands and knees.
“Where is he?” he said.
Brandon rose to his knees, staring up at him. He spat at Tom’s face.
Tom slapped him again, hard. When the boy clasped his hands to his bleeding nose, Tom grabbed his hair with both hands and pulled him farther into the river. When the river was deep enough, he drove Brandon’s head under the freezing water. Tom lifted him back up, Brandon gasped, choking for air, but before he could fill his lungs, Tom forced him under again, holding him down until he thrashed and gurgled.
Brandon walked in front, his hands tied tight behind his back with Tom’s knotted belt. The boy was crying, his bony shoulders convulsing with each sob. Tom did not listen. He gripped the tail end of the belt like he was walking a dog, yanking every now and then to bring the boy to heel.
They followed the river downstream until it forked. They kept to the near side, as the river cut through the valley, passing close alongside the foothills of the mountains. Finally the path broke away from the river and headed upward, deeper into the forest. As the path climbed in elevation, Brandon began to tremble, shivering in his wet clothes.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sniffling.
“That doesn’t matter now,” Tom said. “Just take me to him.”
Finally they came upon a clearing in the dense darkness of the forest. In the center of the clearing, illuminated by the cold light of the moon, Ajay lay stretched out like a starfish. The ropes, tied to his wrists and ankles, pulled his legs and arms in opposing directions toward four little trees—trees grown in awful symmetry, as if they were designed for this purpose. The ropes had been tied so taut, his limbs so fully extended, that his back barely touched the ground. Hearing them approach, Ajay screamed a muffled scream. His mouth was gagged with a white sock.
Tom dropped the belt and rushed to his son. He drew his knife and sawed at the ropes, until he set him free. Tom hugged Ajay. He told him it was ok, that everything was ok, that it was all over. Ajay rubbed his raw wrists and ankles, where the rope had torn into his flesh. His breath was visible in the cold.
“Thank you,” Ajay said, stammering.
Before he could stop himself, Tom began to cry. He cried as he had not cried in years. He cried, not caring, hot tears pouring from his eyes. He had rescued his son.
“I’m sorry,” Brandon said quietly.
Tom turned around. The boy had not run. He was still there, kneeling, his eyes blank as an animal. A trickle of blood, black in the moonlight, dripped from his nose.
Tom wiped away the tears with his sleeve. He thought of the police, their flashlights blazing, searching the cabins and the woods beyond, searching the river. He pictured them talking to Dave. By now, they would be searching for two missing boys. He thought of having to answer their stupid questions—of having to explain things he could not explain. He thought of the cameras watching him and how they would tell the story of what he had been forced to do—judging what they would never understand. They would call him a monster, even though he had acted only out of the most ancient, most fierce form of love. And then he thought of Ajay, tortured on this cruel rack, and of Ajay in the years to come, forever weak, afraid, and broken.
“No,” Tom said, rising to his feet. “You’re not sorry yet.”
He walked toward the boy, towering above him. He grabbed the boy’s hand and splayed out his little fingers.