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THE DETAILS LEFT them speechless, gap-jawed and wide-eyed. Sitting in chairs before the desk of a detective named St. John, who was handling Billy's case, Donald was the first to recover. “How do we know he’s not dead already?”

“Occasionally, Trodder puts him in front of the window. There’s no reason to think your brother’s been harmed in any way.”

“Except that he’s been abducted by someone way crazier than he is, and likely armed to the teeth,” Emo said.

“Yes, but Trodder wants something, and he’s not going to jeopardize this opportunity to get it by harming his leverage.” Strategically, the Detective didn't include the word yet. “Besides, that house is surrounded with every officer we could pull in; some even came in on their day off. Trodder knows he’s surrounded, and he's a smart enough man to realize if we're there, it isn't safe to go near the windows. Your brother, Mr. Reynolds--the hostage--has no such restrictions.”

Donald asked him what should happen next, and what they could do to help the situation. “We’ve got a line of communication to the house that’s still intact; it’s how we were able to receive Trodder’s demands. We’re scheduled to call and give him an update in fifteen minutes. I’d like you, Donald, to make that call. If anyone can humanize your brother to Mr. Trodder, it’s you.”

“What are his demands?”

“I've been ordered not to say.”

“You know that this Trodder guy might not be playing by your protocols, right? What if he tells me?”

“There's not much I can do if he does,” the Detective admitted.

The wherefore and why behind Billy's current predicament, as Donald understood it, went like this: while en route home in the care of a police psychiatrist, Billy had apparently suffered some kind of paranoid breakdown prefaced by a desire to vomit. After complying with Bill's request to pull off at a highway rest area, the shrink was overtaken by Bill and stuffed into the trunk of his own car. At that point, Bill drove to a different rest area further down the road where he left it in the parking lot. From there, Bill went fishing for a ride west among the truckers, apparently with the desire to go home. “Which we found strange,” St. John admitted. “He was safely headed home when he was with the psychiatrist, and yet he pulls all these maneuvers to evade the psychiatrist so he can get the same ride from a trucker ten miles down the road.”

So that no one else had to, Donald said, “Crazy people don’t make sense.”

The trucker who gave Billy the ride east up SR-73 was a woman named Rhonda Deale. According to her story, Bill started acting weird when a story about Manuel and the Gypsy came on the radio. He told her about spending that morning with them. Donald wondered what he was doing while his brother was hanging out with serial killers against his will. Perhaps enjoying his sixth cup of coffee? Reading Emo's back issues of Skateboarder while visiting the crapper?

Billy told Rhonda--before images of the arrest had been televised--that the one named Manuel was wearing a tuxedo. When she eventually saw a TV screen, Billy’s story was confirmed by official sources. At that point, Rhonda attempted to contact police, but Billy vanished again before they could get there. He did this via the assistance, perhaps unwittingly, of a local resident named Felix Trodder.

While he and Emo waited in the break room, Donald said, “Billy’s terrified of authority. He believes Big Brother is constantly trying to hurt him, and he’s not talking about me.” Emo listened to this while watching Donald stare vacantly into the snack machine as though a Snickers might offer some answers. “That’s why he ran away from the police psychiatrist. Bill didn’t know him, didn’t trust him, and was apparently set off at some point by his penchant for assuming everyone is out to get him.”

“It’s too soon to give up hope,” Emo said, as convincingly as possible. As for himself, it was hard to give up what he'd never had in the first place. The sad truth was that the odds in favor of nothing tragic happening to Billy without supervision were less than fifty-fifty, but how far out of Billy's favor lay the odds depended on whether Billy had his meds, which he did not.

There was no one in the room present besides them, but Donald wouldn't have noticed one way or the other; Donald wasn't really here, himself. “I was a shitty brother to him,” he admitted, eyes off in space as though he was telling some invisible version of his younger self.

“It’s normal to blame yourself. If anybody’s the screw-up, here, it’s me.”

“Yeah? You weren’t around to watch him go insane. I stood there like some kind of gawking moron passing a car accident.”

“Now you’re being too hard on yourself. I’m sure you didn’t let him … I’m sure there was nothing—”

“I’m seeing him, finally, for the first time. He’s spent most of his life in one mental facility or another, he’s had the paranoia and depression since high school, and he is still, by far, a better man than me. He cares. That’s the essential difference between us, I think; at the end of the day, I didn’t give enough of a shit, and he doesn't know how to care about anything less than completely.”

When they were kids, Donald and their sister, Stacey, would take turns following Bill whenever he went somewhere; the reason being that Bill needed to retain some sense of independence, or risk losing it forever. Of course, at the time, no one knew for sure that day was inevitable, anyway. Dutifully, they’d done the job, but many times, Donald would come home to lie to their parents that Billy had given him the slip. It was hard for them to confirm such things without admitting to Billy he’d been followed in the first place, which would’ve surely reinforced his paranoia. Eventually, he couldn’t be trusted to stay out of fights, to stop causing disturbances every other place he went, always injuring himself somehow. It was likely he would one day do worse.

Enough public freak-outs finally led the family to seek intensive psychiatric care, which all would later guiltily presume had provoked his final, catastrophic breakdown; the one that broke him completely. Paranoia begat delusions of grandeur, hallucinations, total anti-social behavior, frequent disorientation, and manic depression. Various concoctions of mood and mind-altering substances were administered, but positive results were never absolute. Since then, hope had been gone so long Donald eventually forgot there had ever been any.

Two officers wandered in while Donald remained staring absently at the snack machine. “The M & M’s are in season right now,” one of them said, and the other laughed. The chuckler asked Emo if they were waiting for somebody.

“His brother is the hostage,” said Emo, at which point their joviality vanished.

He overheard Donald mutter, "I fucking left him behind," apparently confessing to a bag of Fritos.

“I know Trodder,” said the cop who’d made the joke. “He’s extremely religious. I truly doubt he will do anything to your brother.”

“I never gave a shit,” said Donald. “What the fuck is wrong with me—?”

Emo rose from the table, placed a hand on Donald’s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry—”

No one saw the elbow coming; perhaps not even Donald, who was responsible for throwing it. After that, things exploded. Both cops rushed forward to get between them. Even while Emo was still on the floor, trying to stabilize some sense of understanding (and finding it all too easy), they were working to keep Donald at bay. “You are sorry, you son of a bitch! You were supposed to watch him! That was your job!”

The cop who turned Donald to face the snack machine did so while pulling out cuffs, but stopped when he saw St. John poke his head into the break room, as did a few other cops who’d been in the vicinity. St. John gave a quick shake of the head in order to halt the handcuffing. Emo was helped to stand. Still turned away, Donald yelled, “If he doesn’t get out of this alive, I will fucking kill you, you hear me!”

Someone told Donald to calm down, and he appeared to take the advice, until he was finally allowed to turn to face the room, at which point he lunged anew at Billy’s caregiver. This time, more than two cops got between them, and Donald was pulled back once again. This time, the cop cuffed him. “Until you get a grip,” he was told.

“I hate to say this right now,” St. John told Donald, “but we’re ready to make that call. Can you do this?”

It wasn’t clear whether they were going to have to re-strategize this whole thing. Donald, in St. John’s opinion, did not currently possess the clarity of mind to reason with someone unhinged enough to take hostages. As if willing to contribute to this notion of him being temporarily incompetent, Donald started muttering, “He just … He just let him go ... He just let him get lost ...”

St. John needed no college degree to see that Trodder was only marginally more unbalanced than Donald, right now, if talking to one’s self in a roomful of cops was any indication. He couldn't put one agitated individual on the phone with another and expect them to calm each other down. It was a matter of policy over truth, since St. John knew so-called "normal" people talk to themselves in public all the time, even when their words are directed at others.

 

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