Cyrus woke up to a bright, white room.
The ceiling above him shone with long, incandescent bulbs. They poured light down on him and made his eyes ache. He closed them again. God, his head was spinning, but at least the pain was gone…
Most of the pain.
His thigh throbbed with dull, aching pulses. Cyrus tried to raise his head, but it was no use. He felt groggy and light, like his consciousness wasn’t actually seated inside his body, but instead hovered just outside it. To his left, a tall metal stand dangled a bag of liquid above him, and Cyrus realized he was tethered to the thing. A long, plastic tube stuck into the veins at the back of his hand and looped up to the bag. He wanted to feel surprised, to feel fear, to feel anything, but he couldn’t, and a realization struck him.
He’d been drugged.
Whatever these people had pumped him full of made him feel floaty and weak, but he tried to get up anyway. He turned and threw his bare legs out from a thin, gray blanket and off the side of the bed. A rush of cool air slipped up the bottom of his gown and in through its open back, sending goose bumps along his arms. His left leg groaned in protest. Cyrus pulled the gown away to see a thick, white bandage wrapped around his thigh.
God, what the hell had happened?
He ran his hands down his face and thought back, but his mind was foggy and uncooperative. Memories came to him in flashes. The last thing he really remembered was work. Talking with Aren out in front of the store. Lonnie freaking out, making a kid cry, and ordering Cyrus inside to clean up bright green slushie all over the floor. And then…
Then they’d been robbed! Or almost robbed. Until that woman with the weird voice walked in…
From there, his memories were harsh and fragmented, like puzzle pieces that didn’t belong to the same picture. He vaguely recalled being out on the street, but how the fuck had he gotten there? All he knew was that he’d been outside…
And a woman had shot him.
A different woman. With black hair and black clothes and streaks of bright, vibrant red across her pale skin.
He looked back down at his leg.
Jesus, he’d been shot!
“Good afternoon. I’m glad to see you’re awake.”
Cyrus startled as the curtain around his bed pulled to the side, and a man walked through it. He wore pale green scrubs and a white medical coat, which hung open. His brown hair was graying at the temples, giving him a distinguished look, and he smiled as he held out his hand. “I’m Dr. Harris. How are you feeling?”
“High,” Cyrus said with a groan. He ran his hands down his face. “What did you give me?” The room still spun a little. Dr. Harris brought his hand back in and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Morphine,” he said. “You might feel a little airy, but it should wear off soon. Then I’ll start you on less intense painkillers—”
“Where am I?” Cyrus opened his eyes and looked around again.
“Which hospital?” Cyrus demanded. “New York P? Sinai? NYU?” He paused as a sense of dread filled him. “I’m not at Bellview, am I?”
“No,” Dr. Harris said, and he provided Cyrus a small, kind smile. “This is a private hospital. Don’t worry. We’ll get you fixed up and back on your way.”
Cyrus shook his head and tried to stand, but the doctor came forward and grabbed a hand around his shoulder. He held Cyrus back with almost embarrassing ease. That’s what he got for living off of rice and beans—and barely enough of it to get by. He felt weak and helpless.
“Look, I don’t have the money for this kind of—”
“You don’t have to,” the doctor said, and his steely gray eyes connected with Cyrus’s. His heavy brows furrowed over them, and his fingers tightened reassuringly against Cyrus’s shoulder. “We have this covered. No strings. No tricks. My only concern is getting you better. Now please, rest.”
He eased Cyrus back onto the hospital cot. Since the room was still spinning, and his legs felt like jelly beneath him, Cyrus allowed it.
“Now,” the doctor said, after he got Cyrus situated and double checked all the tubes connecting him to the stand to his side. “You didn’t have any identification on you when they brought you in. I could just call you John Doe, if you would like…”
“It’s Liam,” Cyrus lied.
“Just Liam,” he responded, and his jaw set firm. The doctor looked him over with an eyebrow raised, then his mouth turned up into a half smile and he let out a soft chuckle.
“All right, Just Liam,” he said. “Take some time to relax. I’ll have one of the nurses bring up some food from our kitchen. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
Cyrus stared at him, dumbfounded. Confused. A little bit relieved.
“No,” he said. “I’m fine.” The doctor nodded and began to turn away, but Cyrus called him back. “And, uh… Thanks.”
Dr. Harris smiled. “It’s my pleasure,” he said, then he shut the curtain and disappeared.
* * * * *
Cyrus sat in bed and listened to the nothingness outside his curtains, staring at the ceiling above him, wondering how the hell he was going to get home.
It had been twelve hours since he’d been brought into this “hospital,” but it wasn’t like any hospital he’d ever seen. What he remembered from old TV shows didn’t match up. There weren’t rooms. Instead, he was in a long ward with dozens of beds partitioned off by privacy curtains. One end of the ward had a door reading “triage,” while the other side had an exit, a nurses station, some offices, and the operating room. A couple of bathrooms stood on the wall opposite from him. It felt strangely military.
The other weird thing was the number of patients… One. Cyrus was it. The bright, sterile white of the room, the stillness, the quiet felt disconcerting. Cyrus’s life had always been filled with clutter and noise and people. A lot of people. A terrified longing filled up his chest.
They would be so worried about him. He had to get home.
Suddenly, a door opened, interrupting his thoughts, and a new noise entered the room.
Footsteps, sure and focused, that he didn’t recognize.
And a deep, steady voice.
“Is our guest awake?”
Cyrus’s heart skipped a beat. He sat up, threw his legs over the edge of his cot, and pulled his curtain back, opening a sliver just enough for him to see through. A man stood by the nurses station. He struck a stark contrast with the rest of the room. He was tall and slender, but not skinny. His black slacks and deep red button-up added a splash of dark and color Cyrus hadn’t seen in this room before. The man’s facial features were cut in handsome, angular dimensions, and a neat, trimmed goatee framed his mouth. A veil of pin-straight raven-black hair, which he pulled behind one ear, fell down far enough to touch the collar of his shirt.
A young nurse, her brown hair held up in a messy bun at the back of her head, nodded. “Yes, sir. He’s in bed six.”
The only bed shielded behind a curtain.
The man turned and looked right at the crack in the drapes. His intense, half-empty black eyes caught Cyrus’s, and it sent a chill down his spine. He quickly pulled back and sat down on the bed again. Those confident footsteps made their way toward him.
When the curtain pulled back, Cyrus just stared.
Now that he was up close, he was struck with just how tall this guy really was. He had to be at least six three, maybe more. He looked down a long, sharp nose at Cyrus as he stepped forward and held out his hand. Cyrus felt like not going along with this would be the wrong move to make, so he grabbed it. The man’s grip was firm, bordering on painful.
“Do you mind if I join you?” the man asked.
Cyrus didn’t think he had a choice to refuse, so he just shrugged. The man pulled a metal chair away from the wall and brought it to the side of Cyrus’s bed. He lowered himself into it. Even seated, he was still as tall as Cyrus. He leaned forward and clasped his long fingers between his knees while he took Cyrus in. Then he smiled. The expression looked practiced on his face.
“How is your leg?”
Cyrus looked down at his thigh. The doctor had given him a pair of generic gray sweats, and the bandage was hidden beneath them. He felt a surge of guilt come up for the jeans he’d been wearing. Darius had insisted he buy himself some new clothes with his first paycheck—to look the part, and feel the part, of someone with a stable job and real income—and now those pants were totally ruined. Part of him had been tempted to ask to keep them, but he was sure they’d gone in the trash as soon as the hospital staff had cut them off him.
There was a good chunk of his hard-earned money, thrown in the gutter.
“It’s fine,” Cyrus said.
“The doctor tells me the injury was superficial and you should be well enough to leave in the next couple of days,” the man said. “You will need to properly clean and dress your wound for a week or two on your own. Do you know how?”
Cyrus shook his head.
“It is not too complicated. I will instruct Dr. Harris to teach you before you leave. We will also send you off with antibiotics to ensure there is no infection.”
“Thanks,” Cyrus said, and he shifted uncomfortably on the mattress.
“Of course. Now, what is your name?”
The man watched him for a moment, unreadable, but at last he shook his head with an almost disappointed beat.
“Your real name,” he said.
Cyrus blanched. The man watched him through deep, black, half-empty eyes for a long moment. When Cyrus still didn’t speak, the man went on.
“Your real name is Cyrus Liam Murphy, is it not?” he said, and Cyrus’s stomach twisted up into knots. He still didn’t answer, and the man kept talking. “You were born in Weeksville in 2072. Your mother, Sophia, worked as a nurse at King County until you were ten. You never knew your father.”
The air around Cyrus narrowed in around him, and he found it hard to breathe. The man wasn’t finished. He watched Cyrus calmly as he spoke.
“When you were ten, your mother lost her license for stealing prescription medication and selling it in order to afford rent. She took a plea bargain and got off on community service, where she connected with two women who offered her work on the pier. In the next two years, she was arrested four times for sex work. After the fourth arrest, she never came home.”
Then the man paused. His intense gaze didn’t move from Cyrus’s face, and Cyrus felt panic rising between his lungs. He swallowed hard against a dry throat and shook his head.
“How the hell do you know all that?”
“It is all public information,” the man said. “And if I can learn this much about you in less than twenty-four hours, so can the people who did this to you.”
Cyrus looked back down at his leg, and his mind thought back to the woman who had shot him. Her piercing, black eyes. The shocked look upon her face. Cyrus shook his head, and his attention snapped back up to take the man in again.
“Who the hell are you?”
“The less information you have about who I am and what I do here, the less these people can hurt you.”
“She already hurt me,” Cyrus said, indicating his thigh.
The man frowned. “Who?”
“That woman with the black hair,” Cyrus said, and the man’s frown deepened. His heavy brows fell dark over his eyes. “Suddenly I was out on the street, and that bitch shot me for no reason!”
“You have seen much more than I anticipated,” the man said. “And more than you were meant to. They will be looking for you… Worse, they will be looking for anyone you know—anyone who can give them information on how to get to you.”
Cyrus’s mouth fell open, “B-but why? I don’t know anything!”
The man shook his head. “That will not matter. You witnessed and survived. They will want to silence you.”
For a moment, Cyrus just stared at the man—at his dark, unreadable eyes and cold, matter-of-fact expression. A heavy weight of powerlessness fell down onto his shoulders.
He thought back to his home—to the kids, to Darius—and his heart dropped into his stomach.
“Mr. Murphy,” the man went on, “we need to contact your family. We need to get them somewhere safe.”
“We can’t,” Cyrus said quietly.
“Why not?” the man asked. Cyrus looked down at his hands and pulled at his fingers, cracking the joints just to give him something else to focus on. He could feel the man’s attention hot on the top of his head.
“What can you not tell me?” he asked.
“It’s complicated,” Cyrus said, clearing his throat, pulling at fingers he’d already cracked so they wouldn’t pop anymore, but fuck, he just needed something to do with his hands. He looked away and shook his head. “A lot of good people could get in trouble. A lot of trouble. I gotta be careful…”
The man frowned.
“Who would get in trouble?”
Cyrus didn’t say anything—didn’t look up from the tile by his feet.
The silence stretched on for several long, painful seconds. Cyrus felt his heart beating in his throat in rapid, erratic pumps. His breath caught in his chest again, threatening to suffocate him. The man didn’t move, and his attention didn’t shy away from Cyrus’s face.
At long last, he took a deep breath and let out a long, slow sigh.
“I am not in the business of turning anyone into the police,” the man said quietly, and Cyrus finally looked back up to him. His mouth was still set into a frown, but now it was more perceptive—more compassionate. “I have no interest in whatever unlawful activities your family may be involved in. I have no faith in our justice system, or any other system our society follows, for that matter, which is why I am currently working to undo them.”
“You mean this place is…?”
“Illegal?” the man said shortly. “Yes. Very much so. It is possible I can help you, and the people you are trying to protect, if you tell me what exactly they do.”
He paused, let that sit in the air, and Cyrus’s stomach gave a small, excited flip. The man waited, watching him with those cold, black eyes. Cyrus wasn’t sure what to say, or to do. One of the first rules he and all the other children had been taught was to keep their mouths shut around people they didn’t know.
People they didn’t know they could trust.
But what option did Cyrus have here?
And… what if this guy, with his fancy clothes and special hospital, could help them?
“It’s not a big deal,” he said slowly, and he gave a sad laugh and shook his head. “Okay, that’s a lie. It’s a big fucking deal. At least, it is to me. I was orphaned when I was twelve, and this guy took me in. He takes in a lot of orphaned kids.”
“That doesn’t seem illegal.”
“Well, no,” Cyrus said, and he scratched the back of his head. “A lot of what he does ain’t illegal. He helps the kids find work and gain skills. Like me. I’d just be another tweaker on the street if it weren’t for him. But we’re stuck living in a building we don’t pay for ‘cause we don’t have anywhere else to go, and, uh… Not everything we do to get by is legal. He could get in a lot of trouble.”
And they could lose everything.
A glean shone in the man’s eyes, but he tried to temper it. Not quickly enough for Cyrus to miss it, though. He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees, as he pressed steepled-fingers against his thin lips. “Who is this man?”
Cyrus frowned and his stomach twisted up in knots. “You gonna look for him?”
“Yes,” the man said. “As I said, you and the people associated with you may be in danger now. How many children does he have?”
“Why does that matter?” Cyrus asked.
“It must be challenging, feeding even a handful.”
Challenging? They were all homeless, bartering and stealing what they needed to survive. Cyrus shrugged.
“We get by.”
“Cyrus.” A little exasperation finally sank into the man’s words. He sat up straighter in his chair and held his hands out, open and empty. “I am not trying to deceive you. I am trying to help you. I run an illegal operation as well, one which is actively working to dismantle the people and systems which have forced you into this situation. Please, allow me to help you.”
“We don’t need help,” Cyrus said.
“I am certain you do,” the man said. “I can provide financial assistance, shelter, resources… I am even willing to take you all in.” Cyrus’s eyes widened, and the man went on. “But first, we must make sure these people are safe. How can I reach out to this man who took you in? I would like to speak to him in person about helping him.”
Whatever faith Cyrus had in the man before shattered with a terrified, suspicious crack. He tried to maintain his composure, but Cyrus knew what to look out for. His hands were held too tight. His jaw clenched. He wasn’t just happy to help… he was eager to.
And that made Cyrus nervous.
“No,” Cyrus said, and he shook his head. “I won’t tell you where he is.”
A flash of anger crossed the man’s dark eyes, but he quickly replaced it. Cyrus’s conviction grew.
“Mr. Murphy, I have no intention to—”
“And I have no intention to tell you where he’s at,” Cyrus said. “I don’t know you. I don’t know if I can trust you. You won’t even tell me your damn name. If my family is in danger, we’ll handle it alone.”
For a few long seconds, the two of them just watched each other in tense silence. The man’s brows fell heavily over his dark eyes, and that anger swelled. Cyrus’s mouth went dry, and he swallowed—
Then the anger subsided, and the man forced a smile.
“Your determination to protect him is admirable,” he said, with an honest, impressed nod. “You are quite a loyal young man. He is lucky to have you.”
Cyrus felt like he could take a real breath for the first time since this guy had pulled open the curtain. A proud bubble built up between his lungs, and he sat a little straighter on his cot. “We’re family,” he said. “We gotta stick together.”
“I can appreciate that,” the man said, and his smile warmed upon his face. “How about this.” He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a small, red business card. “I will give you my contact information. Please, speak to him. Let him know what I am offering here. If he is interested in discussing things further, he can reach out to me.” He held the card out. “How does that sound?”
Cyrus grabbed the card, flipping it around as he looked it over. It didn’t have a lot of information: just a phone number. No company. No address. No name.
“We probably won’t—” he began, but the man raised his hand to cut him off.
“Cyrus, don’t misunderstand me,” he said. “This is not about me. This is about keeping you, and your family safe.”
Then he got to his feet and held his hand out again. Cyrus shook it.
“Dr. Harris will get you everything you need to care for your own injury over the next few days and we shall send you on your way,” he said as he began to exit Cyrus’s private curtain. He paused and turned to consider him one last time. “I look forward to hearing from you and this friend of yours. I think we will have a lot to talk about.”
Then he turned on his heels and walked away. His footsteps seemed a little faster, a little more anxious, upon his exit, and Cyrus was relieved to hear him go.