Secrets and Things We Don’t Say Out Loud
by José Pablo Iriarte
Blame cabin fever–I don’t usually do stupid things.
I’m not supposed to leave the motel room while Kathleen is out looking for stuff she can resell at the flea market. Not if I want to avoid being sent back to the lab. The homeschool worksheets she leaves for me are stupid, though, and nothing is on TV. I’ve been in this town — Anderson, or Henderson, or some other last name — for weeks without seeing anything. At least, nothing beyond what I could spot through the room’s only window, or on trips with Kathleen to the grocery store half a mile down Route 81.
I figure it won’t hurt anything if I hike over to the Gas-N-Go and buy some chips or something with the dollar I found in the laundry room yesterday.
Only it turns out you can hardly buy anything with a single dollar. I spend forever in the store’s four cluttered aisles, checking price stickers and trying to figure out tax in my head.
I glance at the register, and the old man up front is gone. Uh oh. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while on the run with Kathleen, it’s that you don’t get much warning when trouble’s about to hit. Time to scram.
A whiff of too-strong cologne is my only warning that it’s too late. “Not so fast, boy,” he says, stepping out from between two aisles and grabbing my arm as I head toward the door. “You think I don’t see you there shoplifting?”
“What? I didn’t steal anything!” I try to pull away, but the old man’s grip is like iron.
“Do I look stupid? Ninety degrees outside and you walking around here with a jacket — and gloves! What’s in your pockets?”
He yanks on my hoodie right as I lurch away, tugging my jacket halfway off. He reaches for me with his other hand, and I watch it coming for my bare arm for what feels like a minute. A full minute swimming in Jell-O, too slow to get away.
“Stop!” I cry out uselessly. His hand contacts my elbow and his secrets pour into me. Faking sickness to avoid the draft. Calling his daughter a disappointment when she drops out of nursing school. Sighing with relief when his wife finally passes on after a long illness.
I see he’d give anything for another day with her. And that he misses his daughter. She runs a tattoo parlor somewhere in town called Lakeside Shoppes, but she might as well be on Mars.
But when the gates open, they open in both directions. He sees my father leaving because he couldn’t face a kid who knew all his lies. My mother giving me to the government men who wanted to learn what made me tick. Dr. Lakeland — Kathleen — giving up her whole career to free me.
And he learns about the reward for information leading to my “rescue” from my “kidnapper.” A reward that might be enough to retire on.
The old man — Enrique — staggers back. “What are you?”
Not the first time somebody’s asked that.
“Not a thief, for one thing.” I pull my jacket back on.
“Demon,” he says. “Freak. Stay right there.”
He hesitates when he reaches out to grab me though, and in a flash I’m beyond his grasp and out the door.
I pull out my burner phone as I run, and call the only number in my speed dial: Dr. Lakeland.
“Jake? What’s wrong?”
“You’re supposed to call me ‘Mom.'”
“Keep up the cover or you’ll slip when it counts.”
Kathleen’s secret is that’s not the real reason she wants me to call her “Mom.” My secret is that I’ll never think of her that way. But neither of us really has any secrets from the other. Just things we don’t say out loud.
“I’ve been clocked,” I say.
A moment passes. “What happened?”
I reach the motel as I recount the story. Taking the stairs two at a time, I pant the words.
“Meet me in front of the Bi-Lo,” she says, sounding grim. “Fifteen minutes. And Jake–”
I slide the key into the door and step through. “What?”
“Don’t go back to the motel.”
I block the swinging door before it clicks shut. “Um. Okay.”
“Good. See you in fifteen.”
It’s not a lie, precisely. She said not to go back to the room — she didn’t say anything about already being here. Anyway, I’m leaving as soon as I get one thing.
I step to the nightstand beside my bed, and grab the book I was reading. I’m only about halfway through, but if I brought it with me Kathleen would know I came back here. I didn’t come for the book; I’m here for the bookmark.
The happiest day I remember is the day before my mother turned me over to the scientists. The previous few months had been rough. My father left, and then there were doctor visits to figure out what was “wrong” with me — I was so dumb I hadn’t yet figured out I was supposed to hide my ability.
That day, though, Mom took me to Carowinds. She let me choose everything — what to ride, what to eat, what games to play. We stayed until closing, and got a hotel room nearby. I couldn’t remember ever sleeping in a hotel before, and she let me stay up to watch a movie on cable. I figured she’d decided I was okay. That it didn’t matter that I knew people’s secrets, that she loved me anyhow.
I thought things were about to get better.
The next morning, as she packed me into a car with two strangers, she hugged me and told me I was only going to spend a few days with them. Maybe she meant that. Maybe the lab people wouldn’t let her take me back. Or she got in a car accident and died. Or she got amnesia and forgot she had a son in a lab somewhere.
Maybe she wore a long-sleeve hoodie because she was cold.
I take a ragged breath. There’s no time for this. I run my thumb along the edge of the book until the wrinkled and faded Carowinds ticket slips out, and I stuff it into my pocket.
I burst through the motel room door, only to freeze at the sight of a police cruiser pulling into the parking lot three stories down.
What are the odds it’s here looking for me? The old man in the store knows where we are staying, of course, but I figured he would take a while to figure out who to call. The government suits would also take time to scramble up a team and send them down here.
A second cruiser pulls in, and that’s answer enough. I struggle to breathe, as if somebody punched my gut.
My phone slips from my hand as I tug it from my back pocket, and tumbles to the concrete floor. I dive to keep it from falling through the metal railing to the pavement below. It’s in pieces, but this cheap burner phone isn’t actually very fragile. I snap the plastic mouthpiece back onto its hinge and crawl back from the railing as I power it back on and press SEND.
Her voice is no-nonsense crisp. “What?”
“The police are here!”
I swallow. “The room.”
I hear her sigh. “Are they right outside the door?”
One of the deputies steps out of her car and strides toward the office.
“Can you reach the first hiding place?”
Every time we check into a new hotel Kathleen takes me around and points out escape routes and bolt holes.
The first hiding place is a storage room under the stairs. It has two doors, and if you lift a bit and pull both knobs at the same time, the deadbolt slides out. Unfortunately, that’s right by the office.
“Okay, what about the other one?”
The other spot is a ladder leading through a hole in the ceiling, onto the roof. I’d be cornered, but out of sight.
“If you can’t get away, hide. I’ll do something.”
I sprint to the side of the building where the access ladder is. Every rung reverberates like a gong, but in few seconds, I am sliding the heavy plywood cover out of my way. I pull myself onto the flat roof, next to an air conditioning unit.
There is no shade. Between the July sun beating down and the hot exhaust from the AC units, I’m roasting. I don’t know how long I can take it.
That’s a lie. I’ll take it as long as I need to.
I creep to the edge. Down below, the second deputy returns to his car. I hold still, hoping he’ll leave, but instead he talks into his radio and taps on the computer on his dashboard. Where is the first cop?
A third patrol car pulls into the lot.
I crouch on the rooftop, hyperventilating. This isn’t a big town, but it’s big enough to have a police helicopter or two. The sun is low in the sky, but it’s not yet dusk, and there’s no way anybody who checks up here will miss me.
Blaring radio music distracts me, and I peer down at a brown hatchback screeching into the lot. I stare at the window. It looks like Kathleen behind the wheel.
Of course we both know how to hot-wire a car, but what on earth is she doing?
In the passenger seat is . . . a kid? Something about the passenger’s movements as Kathleen barrels over a speedbump and around a turn seems off to me.
Kathleen slams on the brakes like she’s just now noticed the three police cars, and makes the world’s worst backward K-turn, peeling out loudly. Two police cruisers fire up their sirens and take off after her, and they all disappear from my view.
Okay. She’s drawn off all but one cop. It’s only a matter of time before they’re back, and with federal reinforcements. I run back to the hole leading off the roof and slip down to the landing. I can’t see the first deputy, so I rush downstairs, swinging over the railing when there are just a handful of steps left. In a minute I’m on street level, looking up at the open door of our room. Hopefully whoever propped it open is still in there.
In the distance, a truck backfires. At least, I pray that’s what I’m hearing. Then another one. It’s a busy state road in front of the motel; probably lots of trucks backfire even though I’ve never heard one before.
I should check it out.
No I shouldn’t. Kathleen risked herself to give me an opportunity to get away from here.
I stop running. Running stands out. I turn at the next corner, not even knowing what’s down this street. I turn again when I reach another corner, and then again, zig-zagging away from the hotel, and biting my lip to keep from sobbing.
Get away now. Freak out later.
Once the sun sets I lose any sense of which way is east or west. Walk. Turn. Trudge. Turn. Turn. Hobble. I feel like I’ve been wandering forever.
The Bi-Lo. That’s where Kathleen said to meet her. Only, how do I find it? When I do, will she be there? Has she been captured, or, or . . . my brain won’t finish the thought.
Find the Bi-Lo. Nothing else exists in the world besides the Bi-Lo and the road I’m on and the people I need to avoid.
The little road spits me out onto a busy stretch of highway. Several hundred feet away, I see a marker: Route 81. Thank goodness. I pick a direction and start walking.
A short eternity later the lit sign for the Bi-Lo appears on the horizon, and a weight lifts off my chest. Immediately a new one takes its place: Kathleen won’t be there. Or the government people will.
Only now, with the meeting point in sight, do I notice how tired and sore and smelly I am. Finally I make it to the parking lot and scan for . . . something. In the darkness under a burnt out streetlight, I find what I’m looking for. The hatchback from before, or at least one that looks like it. A familiar silhouette sits in the front. When I walk up, I see what appears to be a mannequin lying in the back.
I open the passenger door with a creak. The sound makes me freeze, but nobody comes running out of the darkness or blinds us with spotlights, so I guess we’re in the clear for now.
She barely acknowledges me when I climb inside.
“I know,” I say. “I messed up. I am so–”
She holds up a hand. “Not now. We’ll talk. Later. Have to abandon this car. Hole up.” Her eyes close in a long blink. “Best bet is. Try get out of town. Hope they don’t find the car right away.”
Something about her voice isn’t right. And her words. Try get out of town? That’s not how Kathleen talks. She’s precise, each word as carefully measured as the contents of a test tube.
The pounding in my chest starts up again. I reach for the dome light.
Nobody’s watching us, or we’d already be in custody. I ignore her and click it on.
Her hands are covered in rust, and so’s her shirt. Not rust. Blood.
I think to the backfire noises. She’s been shot.
What were the local cops told, to make them open fire on her?
“You need a doctor.”
She shakes her head and reaches weakly for the light. I turn it off for her.
“Can’t. Hospitals report all shooting victims. I’m okay. No bones broken. No artery hit or I’d be dead by now.”
My insides shrivel up. It’s just luck that she’s not dead. All because I got bored.
She straightens, like she’s been saving her strength, and now it’s time to use it. Then she starts the car and pulls the gearshift into drive.
I study her face as she turns onto the highway, diagonal bands of light from the street passing across her. She may be alive, but she’s not okay. She clenches a bit every time she hits a bump in the road or a lane reflector.
She’s hitting a lot of them.
She isn’t up to this.
Should I try to drive? She’s taught me how, but I’d need her to agree to let me. And I’d stand out behind the wheel.
I stare out the window, as if the answer is out there. I take everything in without paying attention to anything. Familiar red and yellow arches. Lakeside Shoppes. A Family Dollar.
“Pull in here.”
I stop myself before the words “Trust me” tumble out of my mouth. “Because you’re not driving well,” I say. She’s a scientist, or at least she was before she gave that up for me. She respects facts. “There’s somebody here who can help us.”
She frowns, but turns into the shopping center, grunting from the exertion.
I scan the strip mall, looking for something familiar that I’ve never laid eyes on.
“There,” I point. “Bella’s Tattoo Studio.”
She gives me a side-eye, but heads toward the studio. An OPEN sign glows above the front door.
Kathleen pulls into a spot several rows back, where there are no cars she might damage. She hits the parking block hard. I hurry around to her side and help her out of the car. She may not have hit an artery, but it sure seems like a lot of blood to me. Her shirt looks like a zombie tie-dye and her hand is red like she’s been finger-painting. She leans on me and I practically carry her.
A chime inside the door tinkles when I pull it open, and I’m hit by the scent of disinfectant. I guess I expected incense or something, but this place smells more like a dentist’s office. The walls are painted pea green, and black metal ceiling fans turn slowly overhead. One wall is taken up by framed examples of artwork. Four seats that look like dentist chairs or massage tables sit empty in the middle of the floor.
I scan for the girl in Enrique’s memory. Isabel. After a moment I realize the woman reading a magazine behind the counter is her.
“We close in ten minutes,” she says without looking up at first. “Make an appointment. You can’t swoop in here right before–what the hell?”
I meet her eyes. “You’re Isabel, right? We need your help.”
“The name’s Bella.” She glances at Kathleen and swallows. “And what you need is a hospital.”
I shake my head. “We can’t.”
“Whatever kind of trouble you’re in is trouble I don’t need.”
“We haven’t done anything wrong. I know you used to be a nurse. You can help us.”
Her eyebrows bunch together. “How do you know anything about me?”
I stare at the wood grain on the floor. “From your father.”
“My father sent you? Bull.”
“It’s complicated. Look, we don’t have time to argue.”
“What I don’t have time for is her bleeding all over my shop.” She picks up the phone. “I’m calling 9-1-1.”
“Don’t!” I rush across the waiting area, yanking my right glove off as I go. Kathleen sags without my support. I try not to think about that as I slap my hand around Bella’s wrist.
Again the walls fall down. Bella’s secret is that her son was born premature and she blames herself. Bella’s secret is that she wishes she had somebody to confide in. Bella’s secret is she’s not as tough as she pretends.
My secret is that I knew my mother was never coming back to me. My secret is that anybody can lie to me if I really want to believe what they’re saying. My secret is I’m as capable of lying to myself as anybody.
She pulls away with a gasp. “What did you do to me?”
“Now you understand. The people who want me are powerful. They would kill Dr. Lakeland. They can tell the cops anything and the cops will believe them and do what they say. Please, we need your help.”
She swallows and glances deeper into the shop. “Let’s get her on the table in the back. I can’t promise that I can help, but I’ll take a look.” She stands and crosses to the front door. “It’s closing time anyway,” she mutters as she locks it and draws the blinds shut.
I help her carry Kathleen, trying to ignore how her breath catches with nearly every step. The back room has another massage chair, and we drag her onto it.
After tugging on gloves, Bella lifts the side of Kathleen’s shirt, which is stiff with drying blood.
Kathleen chokes off a whimper when Bella prods her side.
“Good news is it’s basically a graze,” Bella says. She meets Kathleen’s eye. “Patching it’s still gonna hurt, though.”
“Can’t you give her something?”
Bella steps to a cabinet and tosses me a bottle of Advil. “Kid, you’re the one that brought her to a tattoo shop. We don’t do general anesthesia.”
I hand the pills to Kathleen, who digs out four and swallows them dry.
Bella douses gauze in hydrogen peroxide and dabs at the wound. When she makes contact, Kathleen cries out. It hurts me just to hear it.
Bella pauses and stares up at the ceiling. I’m about to ask what she’s waiting for, when I hear a pulsing outside. A helicopter.
My mouth dries. Thankfully we didn’t park right in front of Bella’s shop.
Bella swallows and picks up a spool of plastic thread. She uncoils about an arm’s length and wipes it down with a square of gauze doused in rubbing alcohol. “All I’ve got is some fishing line we use to help people hide piercings. This is not the fine stuff doctors use. It’s gonna hurt like hell and leave a wicked scar.”
She unwraps a needle, threads it with the fishing line, and steps toward the table. Kathleen clenches her teeth, but still screams when the needle pokes through.
My chest aches. “People will hear,” I say, feeling like a jerk.
“I’m trying,” she gasps.
Bella begins again. Again Kathleen cries out. Without thinking, I slap a hand over her mouth.
Bella continues stitching, while Kathleen wails against my hand. I thought she had no more secrets, but they pour into me all the same. Kathleen’s secret is that she would do it all again. Her secret is that she thinks she’s not strong enough.
“You’re the strongest person I know,” I say, my eyes brimming.
My secret is there’s a reason I try not to think about why she’s given up so much for me. My secret is that if I did, I’d have to think about how much more she’s cared about me than my own flesh and blood have.
I keep my hand on her mouth until Bella finishes. When I finally let go, all Kathleen does is pant.
“She needs to rest,” Bella says, tidying up. “In the meantime, I should go home, or I might draw attention.” She turns off the light. “Don’t turn anything on.”
After two years on the run, I don’t need to be told this, but Bella is just trying to help. I don’t need to touch her to understand that. “Got it,” I reply.
We sit in silence after she leaves. I have a thousand things I want to say, but instead I listen as Kathleen’s breathing evens out. Once she’s asleep, I pad to a couch in the outer room. I’m sure I’m not sleeping tonight, but I try to rest anyway, so I can focus tomorrow.
I startle awake at the sound of a train horn in the distance. I lurch upright, shoving a ratty blanket to the floor.
“It’s okay, kid.”
Across from me, Bella is pretzeled into an armchair, her head resting on her hand.
“What time is it?”
“Quarter past twelve.” She nods toward the counter. “I brought donuts.”
My stomach rumbles. I grab a filled donut and bite down, lemon jelly erupting into my mouth. Powdered sugar dusts my T-shirt. Whatever. It’s not like I was clean before.
“Thanks,” I mumble around a mouthful.
I don’t mean for the donut.
She nods back, and then sits there, looking at me. It’s kind of creepy.
“She gave up a lot to take you away from that lab, huh.”
My eyes flick to the back room. “Yeah.”
“Maybe if my old man had cared that much we’d have a relationship now.”
I pull the old Carowinds ticket from my pocket and run my fingers along a crease.
I glance at Bella. “I’ve seen into your father’s thoughts. He cares about you a lot.”
I wonder what I would see if I touched my mom today. Would I be on her mind?
Bella shrugs. “Yeah, well, he could’ve been better at showing it. We can’t all be psychics.”
“Well you know now.”
She shrugs. “So maybe I’ll call him. Maybe we’ll talk.”
I don’t reply to that. We sit in silence, Bella looking at something on her phone, me turning the amusement park ticket over and over. I’m glad Bella will have a chance to talk to her father. He’s not young.
Then again, Bella’s not the one who almost lost somebody today.
I get up, cross over to the counter, and drop the ticket into the wastebasket.
Bella and I help Kathleen out to the service parking behind the strip mall.
“Are you sure about this?” I ask.
“They won’t be looking for my car,” Bella replies. “I’ll wait a couple days and then report it stolen.”
Kathleen squeezes her hand. “We can’t thank you enough.”
“I’d say, ‘pay it forward,’ but I think you already are,” Bella replies, but she’s looking at me, not Kathleen.
She unlocks the door and we ease Kathleen into the driver’s seat.
“We’re gonna have to break the steering column if we want your story to be believable.”
Bella shrugs. “It’s a crap car anyway.” She puts a hand on my shoulder, over my T-shirt. “Take care,” she says.
She waits outside while we hotwire her car. Once we pull away, I watch her in the passenger mirror until a turn puts her out of view. I stare at the mirror long after she’s gone, watching this town back away from us. We’ll get as far as we can in the next day or so, ditch this car and take a Greyhound, and start all over again in some other place, some other motel room.
Maybe this time I won’t screw everything up.
Kathleen shifts in her seat. “The last day or so is kind of a blur.”
I try to imagine how much pain she’s feeling. “I am so, so sor–”
“I’m proud of you, Jake.”
I blink. Proud? For what? Almost getting her killed?
“Looks like you took care of a lot, these last few hours,” she says.
I turn toward her, noticing for the first time the small changes that a couple of years on the run have made. Lines on her face that weren’t there when I met her. Touches of silver in her hair. She isn’t the same person who took me from the lab that night.
I guess I’m not the same person either.
About the Author
José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer, high school math teacher, and parent of two. José’s fiction can be found in in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, and others. Learn more at www.labyrinthrat.com, or look for José on twitter @labyrinthrat.
About the Narrator
Devin is uncomfortable with writing bios about himself, but is struggling through it. He lives in Southern Ontario in Canada, where he alternates between working on various costumes, writing stories of his own, and (when his very loud cat gifts him with silence) narrating stories for others to enjoy.