Surely the negotiations for my release have begun. Wyatt Conley might already have bankers bringing him a million dollars in unmarked bills. Or instead of collecting a cash-stuffed briefcase from under a park bench, Leonid’s probably giving Conley the number of some Cayman Islands account that will mysteriously disappear the moment after the ransom deposits.
The door at the top of the stairs swings open. The same strange cocktail of emotions swirls within me—fear, hope, the peculiar happiness of knowing that at least something is happening—
—when I see Paul returning to me, and hope eclipses all the rest.
“Here,” he says. He’s holding a white Styrofoam container and a can of ginger ale. “You must be hungry again.”
“I am. What time is it?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’d just like to know.” My voice shakes, but I swallow hard and continue. “Being in this room for so long—it’s weird, not knowing anything that’s happening outside.”
Paul hesitates. His gray eyes are almost unreadable, but I can see that he doesn’t like realizing how scared I am. When he answers me, his words are simple and precise. “It’s early afternoon. Cloudy. We had rain earlier, but it stopped.”
Who knew it could feel like such a relief just to hear what the sky looks like? “Thanks.”
“Your lunch is late. I’ll make sure dinner gets here faster, if you’re still . . . with us.”
Does that mean “still with us” as in “not yet free,” or as in “alive”? I’m about 99 percent sure he means the former. In this situation, though, 99 percent is not enough.
Paul pulls back the Styrofoam lid to reveal lasagna and garlic bread. The smell of tomato sauce, cheese, and garlic almost makes me reel; I’m that hungry.
But I also remember the night Paul and I made lasagna together in my family’s kitchen. We listened to Rachmaninoff, and our shoulders brushed against each other, and we laughed every time we screwed something up, which happened constantly. That was the first night I recognized that my feelings for Paul had begun to change. Sometimes I think of it as the first night of “us.”
“Any chance of taking these off?” I offer my bound wrists to Paul. “If I try to eat Italian food with my hands tied, I’m going to get it all over myself. Or do you need a chance to laugh at me?”
Paul would never laugh at someone for a thing like that. He’d be offended by the very suggestion, which is what I’m counting on.
But he doesn’t cut through the zip ties. Instead, he says, “I’ll help you.”
As he takes the white plastic fork from its plastic sleeve, I say, “You mean you’re going to feed me?”
“It’s like you said. Otherwise, you’d make a mess.” He hands me the thin paper napkin. “The ties have to stay on.”
He starts to sit on the edge of my cot, then pulls back. No doubt he thinks I’ll feel threatened if he comes close to me too quickly—which I would, under normal circumstances. Actually, as he finally settles next to me, I feel comforted.
This hesitation means he’s thinking of me. Trying to make this easier.
And even though I can’t make my move yet, it helps me to know he’s this close to the Firebirds.
Paul carefully gets a forkful of lasagna, lets the first droplets of sauce fall, then brings it to my mouth. I feel weirdly self-conscious about taking the initial bite. After that, though, I don’t care. The first taste of tomato sauce against my tongue makes me salivate so quickly my mouth almost hurts. I can handle the garlic bread myself, so I sop that in the sauce and eat some before he offers me the next bite. I could swear I’ve never eaten anything this good before in my life.
“You were hungrier than I thought,” Paul says.
I must be wolfing this stuff down like a stray dog. Forcing myself to chew slower, I dab at my mouth with the flimsy paper napkin. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. The fault was mine.”
Paul feels guilty. Maybe I can use that. “Does this establishment offer showers? A bath?” He’d take off the zip ties to let me bathe, surely. “Between the crazy eating and the crazy hair, I bet I look like the Tasmanian Devil.”
“You’ve looked better.”
Ouch. I glare at him. “How would you know?”
“I would assume.”
Once again I remind myself that Paul’s rudeness is always a kind of honesty. Since last night, I’ve been thrown in the back of a van, terrified, imprisoned, and duct-taped. Plus I’m sleep-deprived. I hope I’ve looked better than I must right now.
“Why did it take so long for the food?” I ask. “You only get your ransom money if I’m returned safe and sound, right? Starved to death definitely wouldn’t count as ‘safe.’”
“It takes weeks for a human being to die of starvation. Thirst kills faster, within days.” Another thing that’s the same in this dimension? The way Paul’s face looks when he realizes he’s just said something amazingly tactless one second too late to take it back. “Nobody’s going to deny you food or water. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Did you get some dinner too? I’d bet anything you love lasagna.”
He hesitates. “Everyone loves lasagna.”
“But you really love it.” I say this as innocently as I can, between bites. “I bet you’ve even learned to make lasagna yourself.”
He isn’t fazed—at least, visibly. “You like to pretend that you know me very well.”
“I have instincts about people.”
“Unlikely. What most people call instinct in people is really the interpretation of small subconscious cues.”
“Maybe I picked up on some of those.”
“There are no subconscious cues that could tell you I enjoy lasagna.”
I laugh out loud. Paul does that thing where he realizes something he’s said in seriousness is funny—his expression clouds, and he tries to smile, but it never quite works. Moments like that make him feel vulnerable. So I quickly say, “It’s like you said. Everybody loves lasagna. That’s all.”
“That’s not all.”
“What else could it be?” He offers me one more bite, and I take it, the conversation flowing smoothly around my meal.
“I don’t know,” he says. “But I don’t believe in instincts.”
“What about psychic powers?”
This earns me a stare as withering as the one I’d get from my scientist Paul back home. I decide to mess with his rational head, for once; besides, after hours tied up and freaking out, I need to remind myself how much I know. What power I still possess.
So I say, “For instance, my instincts—or powers, you decide—they’re telling me you wanted to follow a very different path in life. Something that wasn’t illegal. Something more than this, bigger and more meaningful. Personally, I think you would’ve been a good . . . scientist.”
If the situation were less terrible, the look on his face would be hilarious. He puts down the Styrofoam container and stands up. “How could you guess that I wanted—?” His words stop as he catches himself.
How would I have guessed that? “The way you always seem to be analyzing things. You’re smart. I can tell.”