Home > Leaving Blythe River(10)

Leaving Blythe River(10)
Catherine Ryan Hyde

Noah never did.

It’s hard to account for everything that happens while a brain is switched to the off position. Maybe Ethan was too stunned to use his brain in a normal way. Maybe he was in a mild state of shock. Or maybe all the thoughts available to him in that moment were thoughts he didn’t want, and refused to allow.

Even a sense of how much time he’d been walking seemed beyond him.

He didn’t know exactly where he was—not because he didn’t know the area, or wasn’t capable of finding his way around in Manhattan, but because he didn’t bother to look. At anything. Street signs, familiar businesses. Nothing got in.

He remembered traffic noise. And cold. Not much else.

Now and then a thought would force its way through. For a minute or so he found himself unable to prevent replaying his lunch with Jennifer in this new light. Everything looked different. Everything felt reframed. Her enthusiasm at getting to know him seemed so obvious now, its meaning revealed. More the interest of a woman who hoped to be his stepmother. Or maybe she’d been told she could be at some point.

And that comment she’d made about how they were all looking forward to Ethan and his mother’s trip . . .

He forced the thoughts away again. Forced his brain to shutter itself, lock the door. Put out the lights. Admit nothing and no one.

It could have been two minutes later when he noticed the man across the street. It could have been two hours. Time had become a yardstick with no lines and no numbers. Something you could only stare at while feeling perplexed.

Two things about the man broke through. First, he was looking at Ethan. Not glancing. Looking. Second, Ethan thought this was not the first time he’d seen this guy. Ethan hadn’t been paying attention the first time, or the second time if there had been one. But in that slightly jolting moment, Ethan played back the tape in his brain and realized he had made eye contact with this man before.

Ethan stopped. He looked behind and around himself, searching for the assurance of others. Of someone else on this block with him. There was no one else.

The man didn’t stop walking, but neither did he take his eyes off Ethan. He veered diagonally in Ethan’s direction and began to cross the street.

Ethan broke into a run. He didn’t look around, but he could hear footsteps.

Ethan found himself level with an alley, and made a sudden right-hand turn into it. The minute he did, he knew he’d made a mistake. The man would see which way he’d gone. In theory it worked, to make a turn to throw someone off the trail. But the footsteps told him the man wasn’t far enough behind for it to work now.

Ethan couldn’t see if this new route was a dead end. He saw a delivery truck parked in the alley. It was impossible to see around it. Maybe he could run around the truck and keep going. Maybe he would be trapped there. Irreparably trapped.

Ethan could feel his heart pounding in his ears. He’d been afraid in his life—many times, in fact. He’d been afraid of being hit or taunted. Afraid of getting in trouble at home or at school. Afraid of humiliation, or losing something that mattered. But he had never thought he might be about to die. Until that moment.

The thought of a dead end was just too terrible, so Ethan made another huge mistake. He turned and tried to sprint back to the street.

Something big and dark blocked the light from the streetlamps, creating shadow, and then a hand grasped his throat. Ethan felt himself slammed up against the brick of a building, hard enough to knock the wind out of him.

He held very still, in a state of complete surrender. He could think of no other survival plan but to hope to survive.

The hand disappeared from his throat and Ethan swallowed desperately, still trying to restart his breathing. He felt the sharp tip of what could only be a knife pressed high on his throat, just firmly enough that Ethan could feel the sensation of its presence underneath the base of his tongue.

Ethan looked at the man’s face. It was reflexive. He didn’t really want to see it, but still his eyes went there. Flickered up for a second.

The man’s eyes looked dark and cold. Dead. Like no one lived behind them. Like nothing mattered. He wore a stubble of beard that he’d probably been growing for several days.

“What’re you looking at?” The man growled the words more than spoke them.

Ethan could smell the man’s rancid breath. He quickly averted his eyes.

The man’s other hand, the one that wasn’t holding a knife to Ethan’s throat, began exploring. Ethan was relieved to feel that his pockets were the target. Giving the man all the money he had was nothing. Easy. That was the least of his fears.

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