Ren pulled up at the side of the road opposite the entrance to a long dirt track. He looked out of the window expectantly. ‘Do you see him?’ he asked his sister Lenorah, who was lying across the back seat, texting with her bag resting at her feet.
She glanced up from her phone for a second and shrugged noncommittally.
‘What is your problem? Will you look?’
‘Fine,’ she grumbled, sitting up. ‘No, I can’t see him.’
‘That’s weird, he’s always on time.’ Ren checked his watch, then grabbed his phone to tap out a message.
Hey, where are you?
‘Shit,’ said Lenny, leaning forward.
‘Brady says that Ezra’s dad turned up at school yesterday and just dragged him out. Didn’t even let him clear out his locker or anything.’
Ren bit his lip and shot off another text to Ezra.
Are you okay?
After a few minutes of tapping his foot and getting no reply, Ren shoved his phone into his pocket. ‘Right, we have to go down there.’
‘Yes, now. He’s not replying to my texts.’
‘Look, Ren, the Chief is bad news, so convince me why it’s a good idea to be anywhere in the vicinity of his house.’
Ren leaned back and twisted in his seat to face her. ‘Because Ezra might need us. You’ve seen how bad it gets sometimes, or have you forgotten the time he came into school with a black eye?’
‘He told us he fell down the stairs.’
‘And you believed that? Listen, I’m going. School’s that way if you want to walk.’
Lenny shook her head. ‘It’s not that I’m not worried.’
‘It’s just the Chief.’
‘I know.’ Ren tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. ‘Are you coming?’
She sighed and unbuckle her seatbelt. ‘Just park.’
Ren did as he was told, gently bringing his dusty, red Ford closer to the trees on the side of the road, out of the way of the slow traffic.
They got out, Lenny swinging her bag over her shoulder, and slammed the doors behind them. The driveway carved downhill, then opened out to a clearing where an ordinary two-storey house sat content in the sunlight.
‘Let’s try Ezra’s room first,’ Ren said in a hushed voice, leading Lenny around the side of the house. He picked up a small stone and heaved it at the window on the second floor, where it bounced against the glass and clacked to the ground. Nothing happened, so he tried it again. ‘Ezra,’ he called. Still nothing. ‘Maybe he’s just asleep.’
‘Let’s just go in,’ said Lenny. ‘If I remember…’ she kicked over a few rocks that were scattered around the back door. ‘Aha,’ she said as she unearthed a dusty key.
The two of them entered a familiar kitchen. It was almost exactly the same as the last time they had seen it and Ren could still hear Chief Carver’s voice echoing off the crisp, white tiles, banning them from the house. ‘It’s been so long,’ he whispered, mostly to himself, and made for the door on the other side of the room.
‘Hold on a second,’ said Lenny, picking a leaflet up from the messy table. ‘Camp Aspen? Wait a minute, Ren, this is a conversion camp.’
‘What? Give me that.’ He took it from her and read the information on it. “Our residential camp offers a comprehensive course of prayer, medical intervention and regular sin-cleansing sessions. If your son or daughter begins to show signs of impure thought, send them to Camp Aspen, where we will guide them down the path of righteousness. Say no to the Devil.” Holy shit.’ Ren put the leaflet down. ‘This is bad, come on.’
They continued on through the house and up the stairs. Three doors lined the upstairs hall, the first of which, they knew from experience, was locked tight, and bore peeling letters spelling out ‘Rose’. They passed it quickly, unsettled by the quiet, on to the end room they knew to be Ezra’s.
It looked a lot smaller than it used to and Ren deflated at its emptiness. Though it was mostly the same, Ezra had added a few small touches. Star charts, scientific formulae and notes still littered his old cork board, but now there was also a birthday card, with a big, shiny ‘16!’ on the front pinned to it, as well as a picture of the three of them at the park. Ren couldn’t help but notice the family photo that Ezra had always treasured was missing, the only trace of it was its bleached silhouette left against the faded wallpaper.
Lenny went over to look at their group picture and snorted at her heavy black eye makeup. ‘Glad I’m done with that phase.’ She ran her hands through her limp black hair, the blonde roots showing. ‘Maybe I should cut this. I could totally pull off short hair…’ she tailed off as she saw Ezra’s glasses at the end of the desk. One of the lenses was missing, the other cracked. Part of the frame had snapped off at the hinge, and there were small flecks of blood all over them. ‘That’s not great,’ she muttered.
She showed him the glasses and noticed that Ezra’s inhaler had also been left behind. ‘He won’t have gone far without it.’
‘Where could he be, though?’
They sat down on Ezra’s diligently-made bed and Lenny put an arm around Ren in an attempt to comfort him. ‘We haven’t tried the basement,’ she said quietly.
‘We’re not allowed in the basement,’ Ren said automatically.
‘You know what, Ren, I don’t think we’re allowed to break in to the Chief of Police’s house either, but here we are. We might as well try it.’
‘He’s not going to be in the basement.’
‘Why not? Where else would he be?’
‘Fine,’ Ren conceded, grabbing the inhaler. ‘Let’s just make it quick.’
As they approached the top of the stairs, they heard the unmistakable sound of a car pulling up outside. They heard his boots first, stomping down on the wooden floor as he entered through the front door, then through the house to the kitchen.
Lenny slowly peeped her head around the banister at the splashing of running water coming from the closed kitchen.
‘Let’s go,’ she murmured to Ren.
They crept down the stairs, cringing at every creak, until they reached the basement door.
Ren took a deep breath and reached for the handle, nerves jangling in his fingers. He jiggled it, making as little noise as possible, but it was locked. He gave Lenny a stricken look, who desperately scanned the room for a solution.
She found one in the form of the set of keys the Chief had left in the front door, and went over to inspect them carefully. ‘I think it’s this one,’ she muttered, pointing at one that was slightly more used than the rest. She bunched them up in her hand in an attempt to muffle the tinkling sound they made, and pulled them out of the lock agonizingly slowly.
Ren glanced at the kitchen door every few seconds, chewing on his lip nervously, silently urging Lenny to hurry up.
Lenny released the breath she had been holding at the same moment the keys were finally free of the front door, then hurried over to the basement door.
Suddenly, the sound coming from the kitchen stopped and they both froze, waiting for the Chief to throw open the door and see the two of them trying to break in to his basement, but the moment never came. Instead, they heard the back door open and then slam closed.
Lenny took the opportunity to shove the key into the door and usher Ren inside, then lock it behind them.
A mattress had been shoved up against the far wall of the basement, underneath a small window level with the ground outside. They found Ezra there, lying on its rough, uncovered surface, bruised and bloody.
Ren sprinted over to Ezra, sat on the mattress and pulled Ezra into his chest, close enough to hear his wheezing. He felt warm and fragile. ‘Oh my God, Ezra.’ Ren gently tried to shake him into consciousness.
‘At least we know why we weren’t allowed down here,’ Lenny said faintly.
A rickety table rested in the middle of the room against a thick concrete column. Laid out on top of it were several iron spikes, a sickeningly sharp knife, a crucifix, brass knuckles, and a half-empty bottle of whiskey. A length of rope and a whip were nailed to the column next to the table and each of these objects, including the whiskey bottle, were splattered in bloodstains.