Great, Trey thought. I do one brave thing in my entire life, and now it's like, 'Got anything dangerous to do? Send Trey. He can handle it.' Doesn't anyone remember that Cowardice is my middle name?
Actually, only two other people in the entire world had ever known Trey's real name, and one of them was dead. But Trey didn't have time to think about that. He had a crisis on his hands. He'd just seen two people killed, and others in danger. Maybe he'd been in danger too. Maybe he still was. He and his friends had left the scene of all that death and destruction and total confusion, jumped into a car with an absolute stranger, and rushed off in search of help. They'd driven all night, and now the car had stopped in front of a strange house in a strange place Trey had never been before.
And Trey's friends actually expected him to take control of the situation.
"What are you waiting for?" his friend Nina asked. "Just go knock on the door."
"Why don't you?" Trey asked, which was as good as admitting that he wasn't as brave as a girl. No courage, no pride. Translate that into Latin and it'd be a good personal motto for him. Nulla fortitudo nulla superbia, maybe? Trey allowed himself a moment to drift into nostalgia for the days when his biggest challenges had been figuring out how to translate Latin phrases.
"Because," Nina said. "You know. Mr. Talbot and I -- well, let's just say I've got a lot of bad memories."
"Oh," Trey said. And, if he could manage to turn down his fear a notch or two, he did understand. Mr. Talbot, the man they had come to see, had once put Nina through an extreme test of her loyalties. It had been necessary, everyone agreed -- even Nina said so. But it hadn't been pleasant. Mr. Talbot had kept her in prison; he'd threatened her with death.
Trey was glad he'd never been put through a test like that. He knew: He'd fail.
Trey glanced up again at the hulking monstrosity of a house where Mr. Talbot lived. He wasn't dangerous, Trey reminded himself. Mr. Talbot was going to be their salvation. Trey and Nina and a few of their other friends had come to Mr. Talbot's so they could dump all their bad news and confusion on him. So he would handle everything, and they wouldn't have to.
Trey peered toward the front of the car, where his friends Joel and John sat with the driver. Or, technically, the "chauffeur," a word derived from the French. Only the original French word -- chauffer? -- didn't mean "to drive." It meant "to warm" or "to heat" or something like that, because chauffeurs used to drive steam automobiles.
Not that it mattered. Why was he wasting time thinking about foreign verbs? Knowing French wasn't going to help Trey in the least right now. It couldn't tell him, for example, whether he could trust the driver. Everything would be so easy if he could know, just from one word, whether he could send the driver to knock on Mr. Talbot's door while Trey safely cowered in the car.
Or how about Joel or John? Granted, they were younger than Trey, and maybe even bigger cowards. They'd never done anything brave. Still --
"Trey?" Nina said. "Go!"
She reached around him and jerked open the door. Then she gave him a little shove on the back, so suddenly that he was surprised to find himself outside the car, standing on his own two feet.
Nina shut the door behind him.
Trey took a deep breath. He started to clench his fists out of habit and fear -- a habit of fear, a fear-filled habit -- and only stopped when pain reminded him that he was still clutching the sheaf of papers he'd taken from a dead man's desk. He glanced down and saw a thin line of fresh blood, stark and frightening on the bright white paper.
Trey's next breath was sharp and panicked. Had someone shot him? Was he in even greater danger than he'd imagined? His ears buzzed, and he thought he might pass out from terror. But nothing else happened, and after a few moments his mind cleared a little.
He looked at the blood again. It was barely more than a single drop.
Okay, Trey steadied himself. You just had a panic attack over a paper cut. Let's not be telling anybody about that, all right?
A paper cut indoors would have been no big deal. But outdoors -- outdoors, the need to breathe was enough to panic him.
He forced himself to breathe anyway. And, by sheer dint of will, Trey made himself take a single step forward. And then another. And another.
Mr. Talbot had a long, long walkway between the street and his house, and the chauffeur had inconveniently parked off to the side, under a clump of trees that practically hid the car from the house. Trey considered turning around, getting back into the car, and telling the chauffeur to pull up closer -- say, onto the Talbots' front porch. But that would mean retracing his steps, and Trey felt like he'd already come so far.
Maybe even all of three feet.
With part of his mind, Trey knew he was being foolish -- a total baby, a chicken, a fear-addled idiot.
It's not my fault, Trey defended himself. It's all...conditioning. I can't help the way I was raised. And that was the understatement of the year. For most of his thirteen years, Trey hadn't had control over any aspect of his life. He was an illegal third child -- the entire Government thought he had no right to exist. So he'd had to hide, from birth until age twelve, in a single room. And then, when he was almost thirteen, when his father died...
You don't have time to think about that now, Trey told himself sternly. Walk.
He took a few more steps forward, propelled now by a burning anger that he'd never managed to escape. His mind slipped back to a multiple-choice test question he'd been asking himself for more than a year: Whom do you hate? A) Him; B) Her; C) Yourself? It never worked to add extra choices: (D) All of the above; E) A and B; F) A and C; or G) B and C? Because then the question just became, Whom do you hate the most?
Stop it! Trey commanded himself. Just pretend you're Lee.
Trey's friend Lee had been an illegal third child like Trey, but Lee had grown up out in the country, on an isolated farm, so he'd been able to spend plenty of time outdoors. He'd almost, Trey thought, grown up normal. As much as Trey feared and hated being outdoors, Lee craved it.
"How can you stand it?" Trey had asked Lee once. "Why aren't you terrified? Don't you ever think about the danger?"
"I guess not," Lee had said, shrugging. "When I'm outdoors I look at the sky and the grass and the trees, and I guess that's all I think about."
Trey looked at the sky and the grass and the trees around him, and all he could think was, Lee should be here, walking up to Mr. Talbot's door, instead of me. Lee had been in the car with Trey and Nina and Joel and John until just about ten minutes earlier. But Lee had had the chauffeur drop him and another boy, Smits, off at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere because, Lee had said, "I have to get Smits to safety."
Trey suspected that Lee was taking Smits home, to Lee's parents' house, but Trey was trying very hard not to think that. It was too dangerous. Even thinking about it was dangerous.
And thinking about it made Trey jealous, because Lee still had a home he could go to, and parents who loved him, and Trey didn't.
But Lee would be dead right now if it weren't for me, Trey thought with a strange emotion he barely recognized well enough to name. Pride. He felt proud. And, cowardly Latin motto or no, he had a right to that pride.
For Trey's act of bravery -- his only one ever -- had been to save Lee's life the night before.
Beneath the pride was a whole jumble of emotions Trey hadn't had time to explore. He felt his leg muscles tense, as if they too remembered last night, remembered springing forward at the last minute to knock Lee to the side, only seconds before the explosion of glass in the very spot where Lee had stood....
It's easier being brave when you don't have time to think about your other options, Trey thought. Unlike now.
He had so many choices, out here in the open. The ones that called to him most strongly were the ones that involved hiding. How fast would he be able to run back to the car, if he needed to? Would the clump of trees be a good hiding place? Would he be able to squeeze out of sight between that giant flowerpot on the porch and the wall of the Talbot house?
Trey forced himself to keep walking. It seemed a miracle when he finally reached the front porch. He cast a longing glance toward the flowerpot, but willed himself to stab a finger at the doorbell.
Dimly, he could hear a somber version of "Westminster Chimes" echoing from indoors. Nobody came. He took a second to admire the brass door knocker, elegantly engraved with the words, GEORGE A. TALBOT, ESQUIRE. Still nobody came.
Too bad, Trey thought. Back to the car, then. But his legs didn't obey. He couldn't face the thought of walking back through all that open space again. He pressed the doorbell again.
This time the door opened.
Trey was torn between relief and panic. Relief won when he saw Mr. Talbot's familiar face on the other side of the door. See, this wasn't so bad, Trey told himself. I walked all the way up here without my legs even trembling. Take that, Nina! I am braver than you!
Trey started thinking about what he was supposed to say to Mr. Talbot. He hadn't worried about that before. Words were so much easier than action.
"I'm so glad you're home, Mr. Talbot," Trey began. "You won't believe what happened. We just -- "
But Mr. Talbot cut him off.
"No, no, I do not want to buy anything to support your school's lacrosse team," he said. "And please do not come back. Tell the rest of your team that this is a no-soliciting house. Can't you see I'm a busy man?"
Mr. Talbot's eyebrows beetled together, like forbidding punctuation.
"But, Mr. Talbot -- I'm not -- I'm -- "
Too late. The door slammed in his face.
" -- Trey," Trey finished in a whisper, talking now to the door.
He doesn't remember me, Trey thought. It wasn't that surprising. Every time Mr. Talbot had visited Hendricks School, where Trey and Lee were students, Trey had been in the background, no more noticeable than the wallpaper.
Lee, on the other hand, had been front and center, talking to Mr. Talbot, joking with him, going off for special meals with him.
Mr. Talbot wouldn't have slammed the door in Lee's face, Trey thought. Was Trey jealous of that, too? No. I just wish Lee were here to talk with Mr. Talbot now.
Trey sighed, and began gathering the nerve to ring the doorbell again.
But then two things happened, one after the other.
First, a car shot out from under the house -- from a hidden garage, Trey guessed. It was black and long and official-looking. Its tires screeched, winding around the curves of the driveway. Trey caught a glimpse of two men in uniforms in the front seat, and Mr. Talbot in the back. Mr. Talbot held up his hands toward the window, toward Trey, and Trey saw a glint of something metal around his wrists.
The black car bounced over the curb and then sped off down the street.
Trey was still standing there, his mouth agape, his mind struggling to make sense of what he'd seen, when the car he'd ridden in -- the car that Nina, Joel, and John were still hiding in -- began to inch forward, under the cover of the trees. Trey felt a second of hope: They're coming to rescue me!
But the car was going in the wrong direction.
Trey stared as the car slid away, just a shadow in the trees, then a black streak on the open road.
Then it was gone.
They left me! Trey's mind screamed. They left me!
He was all alone on an uncaring man's porch -- an arrested man's porch? -- out in the great wide open where anyone in the world might see him.
Without thinking, Trey dived behind the huge flowerpot, to hide.
Copyright © 2004 by Margaret Peterson Haddix