6–In which we learn that growing up is overrated

Hayden was about to interrupt Emma’s stream of curses when she had turned her back on him. Before he could so much as utter a single word, a hand clamped over his mouth and then quickly stuffed a cloth inside. He tried to groan but found that he was unable to make a sound.

Somebody dragged him backwards, forcing his head down. Despite his attempts at swinging his arms around and kicking, he was unable to locate his captor. He was pulled into the bushes and his eyes were covered with a cloth. He was blindfolded. His wrists were tied in front of him tightly. Hayden couldn’t shake off the feeling that if he had agreed to do the dishes, he wouldn’t have ended up in this situation. He heard Emma calling out his name but it was impossible to respond.

He could feel his captor’s uncomfortably close breath on his cheek. It was horrible and reeked of a smell that Hayden couldn’t quite put his finger on. I’m almost certain that it was the smell of fish.

Hayden was held down strongly. He tried to lift his head up and look through the thin slit between his face and the blindfold when his face was forced down. It must have been a big bush to have kept two people hidden for so long. When I went visited this extraordinary bush a few years later, it had been removed and replaced with a row of dainty daisies.

After what felt like hours but was really only ten minutes, Hayden was pulled up and made to stand. Then he was forced forward. As he staggered blindly, he kept tripping on pebbles or small bumps on the ground. He had lost all sense of direction.

He was being pushed towards a truck, he thought, judging from the sudden poof of filthy air he was breathing in and the loud engine. Hayden tried kicking once more but failed miserably, this time even receiving a snicker in response. He felt someone kick the back of his legs and his knees buckled. Then he was lifted and placed roughly down onto something soft and squirmy.

“Ow!” a voice said.

Hayden winced in horror. It was a child! Before he could think his next thought, he heard someone spray a foul-smelling gas into the air. His head spun and everything went black.

To this day, I haven’t been able to understand how Hayden managed to get himself into so much trouble. How hard is it to kick someone? I know I would have managed it just fine. But then again, Hayden did look kind of puny. He was tall and lanky, and damn, he was skinny. He was a nice guy, though. Maybe that was his problem, that he was too nice.

Anyway, Hayden woke up to a gentle swaying and droplets of water flying onto his face. The blindfold had been taken off but he couldn’t make sense of where he was. Everything was dark except for a few rays of light which weren’t that helpful.

Hayden was glad to feel that his scarf was still around his neck. It gave him comfort, he later explained to me. It had belonged to his father and wearing it was sort of like having a part of him around.

But there was something else. There was something leaning on him. It wasn’t until Hayden felt around (rather awkwardly) that he realised it was a face. And the droplets of water were either spit or snot based on the heavy snoring which were emitting from said face.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark (a natural phenomenon we should all be grateful for as it’s pretty handy when you have to steal food from the kitchen at midnight), he understood that he was in an enclosed cabin of a kind. But that wasn’t what startled him.

What startled him was—

Before I continue, I want to repeat myself in saying that everything I’m saying is true for a fact and I don’t care if you refuse to believe it. But, I won’t lie–I will be disappointed as you did manage to pass the first (and only) test.

Well then, I won’t keep you waiting.

What startled him was that he was surrounded by children, all no older than ten years old. He felt out of place, not just because he was in the middle of who-knows-where in who-knew-what, but because he was so much older than them. Eight years older to be precise.

He thought there were twenty or so children in the cabin which, when compared to the real number, was a pretty good estimate to make in the dark. Along with the approximation of their ages.

“Be careful with the old one,” he heard a woman’s voice say behind him which was weird as there was a wall there. It sounded raspy as if she had been born with a really bad sore throat which had never quite healed. “He may be the most precious of them all.”

A sudden realisation washed over him like a wave before he could actually formulate a thought. “They’re talking about me,” mumbled Hayden, frowning slightly.

“Ha! I’m still doubting your decision of choosing him.” This was said by a man. He had an annoyingly high-pitched voice.

“He hasn’t lost his innocence. He’s still a young boy at heart and a pure one at that.”

The man snorted loudly. “Pathetic, really. He’s not a boy, he’s a young man. He should be ashamed of being here.”

Hayden felt his ears become warm with embarrassment. He tried to shift his arms forgetting that his wrists had been bound together—by rope upon closer inspection. The knot was intricate and had a sort of beauty to it. The way the rope looped elegantly over itself was like the coils of a snake. A small snake.

Around him, the children were starting to wake up, some waking mid-snore.

It took them a while to get their bearings, but when they did, it was a cacophony of caterwauls.

“I want my mommy!” a boy cried.

“Me, too!” a girl seconded.

Hayden felt his heart melt which wasn’t that hard to do because it had already been awfully soft and squishy to begin with. He looked around in despair. If only there was something he could do.


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