16 ~ Countdown
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A short time and some minor preparations later and we were on our way. I was still trying to recover from the realization that Cerise and Bex might just be the same person. I don’t know how I felt about that. I don’t know how I felt about her

Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. I’m pretty certain I knew exactly how I felt about her. That was the simple part. But anything beyond that... when I thought about us, and the way that I had messed everything up and the contexts in which we interacted and the lies I was hiding behind… Well, it got very tangled up, very fast.

So instead, I channeled all of my churning emotions into focused and intense resolve. Before I needed to bother worrying about the rest, I had to get Bex out. I had to save her. And so after a bit more explanation for Mark and Avery’s sake, I spent the rest of the car ride plotting. 

We didn’t know the exact situation on the ground, but we’d have to expect the worst. What information did we have? Well, that Bex had disappeared. If she had just been kicked out of her house, she would have hopefully gotten in touch with Mark. Instead, this seemed more like her dad had cut her off from all contact with anyone else. The safest guess was that he was keeping her locked up at home, and if that was the case, then we were going to break her out. One way or another.

When we finally arrived, I found that Bex lived in an alarmingly normal suburb. Like, literal white picket fences in front of each cookie-cutter house. Mark pointed out the place as we drove past – a nice two-story home painted light blue – and then we parked down the street, the better to avoid unnecessary attention.

“So what’s the plan?” Mark asked. “We make a scene? Try to get Bex’s attention and then grab her and run?”

I shook my head. “We can’t risk it. If Bex’s dad calls the police, who do you think they’ll side with? Upstanding homeowner or gang of disreputable gay kids? No, we need to be smart about this.”

“Uh-huh,” Jenn said, doubt evident in her voice. “So you have a big plan? And it’s a smart one?”

I chewed on my bottom lip. “As smart as I’ve got at least. There’s no easy answer here... It’s all about calculated odds, making sure we’re doing things for a reason. Sure, it’s going to be risky, but trust me on this. We only need to create one good opportunity, and then take advantage of it. And to do that, we’re going to have to throw Bex’s shitty dad for a loop.” I grinned. “But if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s fuck with people.”

One of Jenn’s eyebrows floated upwards. “You’re going to use your powers of being a shitty troll for good?”

“Please don’t tell anyone or my reputation will be ruined.”

“So what do you need us to do, then?” Avery asked.

“Oh, trust me, this is going to be a team effort. Jenn, you’re up first. I need you to ring the doorbell, but then hide.”

She blinked. “And what, that’s it? That’s the distraction?”

“That’s only the first step. He won’t find anyone outside, but probably just write it off. Then, once he shuts the door, I need you to wait exactly ninety seconds and do the same thing again, but even louder, like really hammer that doorbell, okay? The second time he’s going to be pissed, so if you can, hightail it all the way back to the car just to be safe.”

Jenn smirked and shot me a salute.

“Okay, but this hardly seems like a plan,” Mark grumbled.

“That’s just the first part. Mark, Bex’s dad is shitty cause he’s religious, right? Not just garden-variety homophobe?”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “He’s a pastor or something for this weird super-conservative group.”

“Perfect.” I reached into my backpack for the next part of my preparations. I threw the bundle of clothes at Avery. “Put these on.”

“Wha— What?” He held up a white button-up shirt and red tie. “Why?”

“Because after the second time, he’s going to wait by the door and try to catch whoever rings it next. And that’s going to be you.”

“Um,” Avery said. “I have concerns about this plan.”

“But here’s the thing,” I said, ignoring him, “you aren’t the shitty teen who was bothering him.” I jerked a thumb back at Jenn, who looked perfectly pleased with being assigned that role. I pointed at the clothes in Avery’s hands. “You’re a missionary going door to door, and you’re going to ask him if he’s accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior.”

What?

“Be prepared, he’s probably going to bite your head off when he opens the door, but when he sees you and you explain why you’re there, he’ll feel terrible and invite you in. To, like, talk to you about the Bible or whatever the shit. Just be your normal boy-scout self and throw in some references to Jesus and eternal hellfire and keep him busy.”

Avery looked extremely nervous still. “And how exactly am I supposed to find Bex? You know I’m not that great at lying. I don’t think I can just ask to use the bathroom and sneak off.”

“You don’t have to find Bex.” I smirked. “I will. Because you, too, are just a distraction. Mark and me are breaking in the back.”

 
 


 
 
 

I told Jenn to give us a sixty second head start before she enacted ding-dong-dash number one, and Mark and I crept around the corner of the house, hoping like hell that none of the neighbors noticed that their street had been suddenly claimed by a roving gang of suspicious college kids. We made it around the side of the house with no sign of trouble, but I still kept low, ducking to stay under the windows.

Mark had to give me a boost over the side fence, but it was trivial to open the gate for him from the other side. The backyard wasn’t much more than a fenced-off rectangle of neatly-trimmed grass, with only a small shed by the back fence and a couple of trash cans by the back door. Not a lot of great hiding places, unfortunately.

“Okay,” I said. “Now where’s Bex’s room?”

Mark pointed up. “Second floor, window on the right. So what, we throw something at it to get her attention?”

“Like what, exactly?” The yard was neatly-trimmed grass, no convenient gravel. It was a good idea, but— 

“Would this work?” Mark hefted a brick.

I blinked. “Where did you get that? And no! We don’t want Bex to think someone is trying to kill her.”

The brick thudded onto the grass. “Aw.”

“We’re going to have to go inside.” I crept up to the door, staying low still. But when I turned the handle, it clicked. Locked.

“So what now?” Mark whispered. “Do you know how to pick locks too?”

Best case scenario would have been that the door was just open. But I had planned for this, too.

“Social engineering,” I said. “Now go hide, I’m gonna be a raccoon.” He stared at me, but I waved him back around the corner of the house so he was out of view.

I glanced at my watch to check the time. Right now, Jenn should have already rung the bell for the first time. I waited another five seconds. And then I reached out and banged the lid of the trash can as loudly as I could, before ducking behind the other side of it. I kept my watch out in front of me. 

I was praying to whatever supernatural forces might be listening, because there were so many ways this could go wrong. And it was only going to get riskier from here on out. But this was for Bex. For Cerise. And I was going to do this, no matter what the consequences. That’s what I signed up for in the very beginning, right? We had a deal, for me to help her be who she wanted to be. I was going to stick to it, even if it took me to hell and back.

I tried to be as quiet asI could, and I could hear the thud of footsteps from inside, and then a creak as the back door opened. My heartbeat sped up as grass crunched underfoot and someone walked closer. I tried to make myself even smaller behind the garbage can, but all they had to do was look around the other side and I would be right there.

I was even close enough to hear them now. “What is going on today?” they muttered.

I just had to trust that I timed everything right, and that Jenn— 

Even from the back yard and crouched behind a trash can, I could hear the doorbell ringing frantically.

More muttered curses, and then hasty retreating footsteps and the creak of the door opening and closing again. I let out the breath I had been holding. That was closer than I would have preferred, but good enough.

Mark popped his head around the corner of the house again, and I motioned him over. I cautiously turned the handle and it clicked open, still unlocked. Perfect.

But when Mark glanced at the door, and then back at me, he looked particularly nervous. 

“I’m… not sure about this.”

I gave him a long look. Honestly though, he had a point. Two people would be way noisier and easier to catch than one. And Bex’s dad knew Mark already. If this did go off without a hitch, it’d be great if Bex’s shitty parents didn’t know where she was for as long as possible.

“Okay,” I said. “Wait ten minutes for me here, and if I’m not back, then go to the car and be ready to serve as a getaway driver, okay? And text Jenn and check that everything’s going well with the plan on the front side.”

He nodded, and then smiled. “Good luck, Grickett.”

“Don’t worry.” I grinned back. “I got this.”

Before I actually made my way inside, I looked through the window, trying to scope out the room inside. It looked like this led directly into the kitchen. Down a long hall, I could see the front door, and standing in that front door… was a balding guy talking to Avery. It was now or never.

Sliding the door open, I slipped inside. I figured it was worth the extra few seconds to close the door softly behind me, but then ducked behind the kitchen island as quickly as possible. I wanted to stay out of the line of sight from the front door, so I snuck through the closest available doorway, to find… a dining room? No good.

“Why don’t you come in, son?” I heard the voice from the front hall. “I can get you a glass of lemonade and we can talk about the finer points of the Scriptures. What exactly do they teach you about hermeneutics?”

“Gee, thanks sir,” Avery’s voice chimed in, and I could hear their footsteps moving closer. “You know, I don’t really know. I’m pretty new to all this.”

My only options for hiding places were either under the table or behind some kind of china cabinet, and in a panic I chose the latter, squeezing against the side of it so I would be as out of view as possible from the hallway. Just in time for the two of them to walk into the dining room. 

For a second, I thought I was toast, but Bex’s dad wasn’t paying attention, and I stared at the back of his head as he walked into the kitchen to get Avery a lemonade.

But Avery had definitely noticed me. I held one finger to my lips, but he just stared, entirely pale, as I dropped to the floor, trying to scuttle over to the entrance to the hall.

“You know what?” Avery said loudly. “I’m actually allergic to lemons. What else do you have? Could you just list all the options for me? What about coffee?”

Huh. He was better at this than I expected. I gave him a thumbs up, and then tried to take advantage of the opportunity as Bex’s dad started saying something about caffeine being an unnatural stimulant. When I peeked into the kitchen from down the hallway, his head was stuck in the refrigerator.

I wasn’t going to get any better opportunity. I tried to step lightly, but more or less ran down the hallway to get to the front door. And there, thankfully, a staircase rose to the right. I dove to the side out of view of the long hall.

Whew. I had to purposefully slow down and catch my breath before creeping up the stairs. I didn’t want to be undone by a stray creaky step when I had gotten so far. I could still kind of hear Avery and Bex’s dad talking, with Avery speaking a bit louder than usual, but whether that was due to nerves or his desire to continue covering for me, I wasn’t sure. 

Then I was at the top of the staircase, and there was just one long carpeted hall. I had made it. I grinned to myself.

Easy.

I mean, not exactly, but I had done it, right? Good enough.

Still trying to tread quietly, I walked down the hall. If Mark was right, then the Bex’s room should be… this one.

I paused in front of it. What was I going to say? I had wrapped myself up in the minutiae of this whole plan, but now I actually had to face Cerise for the first time in real life. There was so much I wanted to explain, so much I needed to apologize for. My heart thudded even harder than when I was about to be caught by her dad, because no matter what he might do if he caught me, I really knew that Cerise was the only one who I actually cared about.

But I could face that later. I could deal with Cerise ultimately rejecting me, as long as she was safe and happy first. I needed to keep this simple, and just get her out of here.

Steeling myself, I turned the door handle, pushing it open.

“Bex,” I said. “I’m here to—”

The girl lying on her bed reading a textbook was absolutely not Bex.

She looked up at me, brow furrowed. We stared at each other for a long moment. Finally, she was the one to speak.

“Who the fuck are you?”

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