The obnoxious blaring of my alarm clock echoed off the walls of my bedroom, announcing the beginning of another day. This day was different in two ways, though. First, it was the last day of school for the entire year. Second, it was my twelfth birthday. I couldn't bring myself to smile, though. My birthdays had always been met with something terrible ever since I was first placed in the system. This was my sixth birthday in foster care, but it would be the first time that I wouldn't have let anybody know what was coming. I didn't want anybody to know.
I knew Greg and Natalie cared about me, but I didn't want to tell anyone. I had to keep the secret of my birthday safe to myself. I didn't even tell Gavin, and I had started to tell him everything like he was my best friend. My social worker hadn't been by to visit in the past few weeks, so I assumed that I had managed to fly under the radar, and would make it a year without anybody taking notice of me. Natalie and Greg had already done so much for me; more than I could ever deserve. My birthday would be one more burden for them to have to handle. Disappointments don't deserve to have good birthdays, anyways.
I grabbed some clothes for the day, before I went over to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom. I stood under the hot water for several minutes before there was a light knock on the door.
"Yeah?" I called out over the sound of the running water.
"Zach?" I heard Toby's voice as he stuck his head just inside of the bathroom. "Can I go pee?"
"Umm, yeah." I said nervously. "Just don't flush the toilet."
"Okay," Toby said sleepily as he stumbled into the bathroom.
I heard the boy lift up the toilet lid before he emptied his bladder. The water pressure only dropped for a moment as my little brother stopped to wash his hands before he left the bathroom. I frowned when I didn't hear the door click shut behind him, but hurried and finished my shower anyways.
Once I was dressed again, I went downstairs to the kitchen and found Natalie talking to someone on her cellphone. Natalie motioned me over to sit at the counter while she continued her conversation.
"Of course, I'll make sure to tell him, Karen." I froze at Natalie's words and half-considered running back upstairs. The look on Natalie's face told me that it would be useless for me to try and escape. I knew exactly what Karen was telling Natalie. Instead of running, I lowered my head and fought to keep tears from falling down my cheeks. "They're both perfect angels, Karen. I swear to it." Natalie reached over and ruffled my hair with her fingertips while she smiled at me. "We really wouldn't have it any other way, Karen. You should know that by now." Natalie paused again before she smiled and nodded. "Greg and I discussed it, but we were waiting for someone else to tell us." Natalie laughed and sat down on the empty stool beside me. "No, I think I know exactly how to handle this. I'll let you know how it goes when we talk later."
Natalie ended the phone call with my social worker a minute or two later, but I still couldn't bring myself to look at my foster mother. The moment that she wrapped her arms around me, I broke down into quiet sobs. Natalie hugged me even tighter.
"I love you so much, Zachary." Natalie said as she held me against her chest.
"I know," I whimpered. "I'm sorry, Natalie."
"You don't have to be sorry for anything, baby boy." Natalie reassured me softly. She stuck her finger under my chin, and lifted until my gaze met hers. Natalie wiped the tears from my cheek with her thumb and smiled at me. "This is your home, Zachary. We only want you to be happy here."
I sniffled softly and shuddered as a memory of the monster striking me across my back with a belt flashed through my mind. Natalie just held me tighter.
"Does anybody else know?"
"No," I replied quietly. "I stopped telling people after I turned eight."
Natalie kissed the top of my head softly as I continued to cry.
"You're safe now, Zachary." Natalie reassured me. "We only want what's best for you. We would never let anything happen to you or Toby. You boys are the best thing to ever happen to us."
"Even though I'm worthless?"
I felt Natalie freeze as the question left my lips. I didn't even realize that I had said the words out loud. My heart began to race as the panic set in. She was going to see it, now that I had pointed it out. She was going to see how much of a disappointment I really was. The monster had effectively beat that knowledge into my head. I saw a look of anger flash across Natalie's green eyes, and turned to pull away so I could hide in my room. I had witnessed that expression in the monster's eyes to know what it meant. Natalie didn't let me go, though. My foster-mom surprised me by pulling me into her chest and crying with me as she rocked me back and forth.
"The monster told me that," I said in a trembling voice. "He made sure I knew it."
I didn't want Natalie and Greg to send me away. I was happy living with them. So, I started telling Natalie everything that the monster had put me through. I continued until I got up to the part where the monster was dragging me through the house and throwing me in the tub. I even told Natalie about the strange boy that kept visiting me in my dreams.
My foster mother was trembling silently when I finished, but she still refused to let go of me. I waited with my head down for her to see that the monster had been right all along. I began to shake again, and the tears fell from my eyes uncontrollably.
"I'm sorry," I whimpered.
"Don't ever be sorry for what that piece of shit did to you, Zachary." Natalie said with such venom in her voice that I tried to pull away from her. I was shocked to see the tears in her eyes as she gripped my hands tightly to keep me from pulling away before she was ready. "You are not worthless, Zachary, and you never were! No child should ever be put through the shit you went through." Natalie's tone suddenly turned soft as she pulled me back into her arms. "I wish I could go back and take all of that pain away from you, Zachary. I wish I could go back and make you mine."
"Me, too." I whispered quietly.
Natalie hugged me tightly again one last time before she finally let me sit back. She wiped the tears from both of our cheeks with the sleeve of her shirt before she kissed my forehead.
"Is everything okay in here?" We both jumped at the sound of Greg's voice as he entered the kitchen with a fully dressed Toby in his arms.
"It is, now." Natalie said with a slight smile. Greg gave her a kiss on the cheek before he set Toby on the empty stool to my left.
"Now?" He asked with a raised eyebrow.
I couldn't bring myself to look at either of them. Greg stopped to kiss the top of my head and hugged me for a moment.
"Morning, buddy." Greg greeted me before he went over to get himself a cup of coffee. "So, what's the plan for today, Nat? How are we going to handle picking up the brats from school?"
"Hey!" Toby complained making Greg giggle. "I'm not a brat!"
Natalie and I both laughed at Toby and Greg.
"Well, Zach only has a half-day, so I was sort of hoping that you could pick him up on your lunch break." Natalie said with a smile.
"Wanna hang out with me for a couple of hours, Zach?" Greg asked with a grin. "I'm sure the guys would finally like to meet the person responsible for giving me a black eye."
Toby looked at me in disbelief as Natalie and Greg both laughed. I grinned slightly at the memory.
"You could try to sweet talk David into swinging by your office, Greg." Natalie hinted. "Doesn't he still have to sign that book for Zach?"
"That's right, Nat!" Greg said with a grin. "Make sure you bring your book, buddy. I'm pretty positive that Mr. Montgomery is back from his latest book tour. He usually stops by the office anyways when he gets back to make sure there are no loose ends."
"Today would be the perfect door for it, Greg." Natalie said with a hint in her voice that Greg wasn't catching.
"Why?" Greg asked curiously as he glanced between us.
I saw Natalie make a motion out of the corner of my eye, and Greg's eyebrows rose in surprise a second later.
"Today?" He asked in disbelief before he glanced at me. I couldn't bring myself to meet his gaze. I knew exactly what Natalie had told him. "Well, good thing Mr. Montgomery sent me a present for his biggest fan." Greg chuckled and shook his head. "You're just full of surprises, Zachary. I'll be right back. I need to get something out of my office."
"What's going on?" Toby asked curiously.
"That's for Zachary to tell you, buddy." Natalie said as she got up from the stool. "How would you like some cereal, guys? I'll make sure I make something special for tonight, Zachary."
Toby looked at me and poked me in my side.
"Tell me, mister." I glanced down at the hazel-eyed boy and frowned. "Please?"
I sighed deeply as another tear fell down my cheek.
"It's my birthday, Toby." I said in resignation. The word was already out, it was only a matter of time before Toby found out, too.
"Really?" Toby asked excitedly, almost jumping into my lap as he hugged me tightly. "Happy Birthday, Zachary! I love you!"
I hesitated at his words, but quickly wrapped my arms around Toby and hugged him back.
"Thanks, baby brother." I said as I cried softly. I had no idea how those few words coming from Toby would be able to lift up my spirits so quickly.
"I... I love you, too."
Greg didn't return from his office until Toby and I were finished with our cereal.
"Sorry," he said when he came back. "I had to make a phone call, really quick. Here, buddy."
Greg set a small brown-paper wrapped box on the counter in front of me.
"Happy Birthday, Zach." Greg said before he kissed the top of my head. "It wasn't supposed to be a birthday present, but I guess it works."
"Thanks, Greg." I said before I pulled off the brown paper to reveal a brand new copy of my book. I smiled as I read the cover of the book.
"The Touch""By: David Montgomery"
"Special Collector's Edition with artwork by Nick Meijers."
I smiled again and hugged Greg tightly.
"I love it, Greg." I said happily.
"Open the front cover, buddy." Greg said with a grin.
I gasped when I saw a handwritten note from the author on the inside cover of the book. I read it slowly while Greg chuckled from behind me.
I hope you're enjoying living with Natalie and Greg! Greg does nothing but tell me great things about you, and I hope I get to meet you soon. Keep your foster-dad in line for me, Zachary.
Best wishes, David Montgomery"
Greg chuckled and ruffled my hair. I was about to start going through the drawings of the book when Natalie announced that it was time for us to leave. I frowned but left the book sitting on the counter and went to find my backpack. I saw Natalie pick up the book as I left the room.
"Greg?" I heard Natalie call out while I made sure I had my sketchpad and any books I might need for school. "You might want to come see this."
"Just a second, love." Greg replied from another room.
"It's important, Greg." Natalie said in a tone that said she meant business and Greg was supposed to drop what he was doing.
I grabbed my backpack and found Greg and Natalie talking in quiet voices. Natalie had my book in her hand.
"How is this even possible, Greg?" Natalie asked softly. "Why didn't we figure it out sooner."
"I don't know, Natalie." Greg replied. "What do we do now that we know?"
"I'll take the boys to school," Natalie said calmly when she noticed me standing in the doorway. "Make sure you call David when you get to work!"
"I'll do it as soon as I walk through the front door, Natalie." Greg reassured her before he took the book away from her. "I'll make sure this is in your room, Zachary."
Greg hugged me as he passed me on his way towards the stairs. I felt like they were talking about me, but neither of them was treating me any differently.
"I'll be waiting for you out front when you get out of school, Zachary." He said with a smile. "Happy Birthday, baby boy."
"Thanks, Greg." I said with a blush, the secrecy of my foster parents quickly forgotten as Natalie started talking about the last day of school with me.
The ride to school went by faster than normal and I was suprised to see us pulling up out front of the school with more time than usual to spare. She reached over and ruffled my hair before she told me to have a good day, and sent me on my way.
'Why are they being so weird all of a sudden?' I asked myself as I turned back to see Natalie's car pull away from the curb.
Normally, if we got to the school too early, Natalie would sit in the car with me for a few minutes. Today, she acted like she couldn't wait to get me away from her. I was almost to the front doors of the school when my phone chimed in my pocket. I pulled it out to see that I had a message from Gavin.
Gavin: Happy Birthday, Zach! Love you, cuz!
I smiled before I sent a quick thank you as a reply. Then, I made my way to my homeroom so I could get the last day of school over with. Mrs. Coster stood by her classroom door like usual.
"Good morning, Zachary." The older woman greeted me pleasantly. "Did you remember to bring all of your textbooks with you?"
"Yes, ma'am." I said shyly as I motioned towards my backpack.
"Good," she said with a nod. "Go ahead and take your seat. The entire day is going to be spent in this room."
I smiled and went over to my seat at the window. I set my bag on the floor and took my seat just as Deedra entered the room with Sheldon right behind her. Ava was the last of our little group to enter the room with a wide smile on her face.
"What are you so happy about?" Sheldon asked curiously as the girl took her seat.
"My dad's actually letting me throw a party for the Fourth of July!" Ava said excitedly. "You guys are all invited! I can't believe this! He said that he's been planning on it for a while now, but he didn't want to tell me until today."
"That's awesome, Ava!" Deedra told her friend once the girl had stopped talking long enough to take a breath. "I'm sure I can get the parentals to let me go!"
Ava and Deedra continued to discuss different details of the party while I turned my attention to the window. I had grown fond of this view over the past few months, and I highly doubted that Mrs. Coster was going to be my homeroom teacher for Seventh Grade. I watched as a bright red cardinal landed on the branch directly outside of the window before it took off again. I smiled happily at the sight before turning back to the room just as Mrs. Coster started our last day of school.
Deedra hugged me when the final bell rang before she ran from the room to catch her mom. Sheldon told me that his family always goes on vacation during the first weekend of Summer, but they never told him the plans until they were actually in route for their trip. I had no idea what Natalie or Greg had planned for the Summer. I knew Greg would still have to go to work, but Natalie would be home with Toby and I all of the time. She would definitely be tired of two boys by the end of the first week.
I saw Greg's SUV parked in the line of cars as Sheldon and I finally made it outside of the building. Sheldon promised to text me later that evening as he walked towards his dad's truck. Greg waved at me from the driver's seat of his SUV and I waved back as I approached the vehicle. Greg motioned for me to climb in the front seat.
"Hey, buddy!" He greeted me pleasantly. "How's it feel to be free for the entire Summer?"
I giggled and shook my head as I glanced at him.
"Nat and I are still discussing a few ideas for what we can do with you boys this Summer," Greg said as he pulled out into traffic. "Any ideas?"
"Not really," I said with a shrug.
"Not really, huh?" Greg asked with a smirk. "Come on, mister. I know you've got an idea in that tiny little head of yours. Let's hear it, buddy!"
"Can we go camping?" I asked nervously. Sheldon had told me how his family had went camping last Summer, and it seemed like a good idea. It was something I had never done, and Greg was always trying to get me to try new things.
"That's an excellent idea, Zachary!" Greg complimented me with a grin. "We'll have to discuss it at our next family meeting. I'm sure Natalie and Toby would be more than happy to go camping. Are you hungry?"
"Starving," I replied with a grin.
"Like a bottomless pit," Greg teased me as he pulled into McDonald's drive-thru.
A few minutes later, we were back on the road and I was busily stuffing my face. Greg made a few teasing remarks about me always being hungry, but I just smiled and laughed with him.
"Our grocery bill is going to be ridiculous this Summer," Greg said as he pulled into the parking lot of a small office building. "Natalie has no idea what she's in for."
We finished eating our food before Greg motioned for me to go ahead and get out of the SUV.
"We shouldn't be here for too long, bud." My foster-dad said as he took me to the front entrance of the building and pulled the door open for me. Greg smiled at the woman at the front desk as she smiled back at us. "Did I miss anything exciting, Elaine?"
"It was like you weren't even gone, Mr. Harris." Elaine said with a bright laugh. Then, she motioned towards me. "Is this one of your sons that you're always bragging about?"
"Yes, ma'am." Greg stated proudly. "Elaine, this is Zachary. Zachary, this lovely lady is our receptionist Elaine."
Elaine had gray hair, and her eyes were a deep green color. She smiled, and seemed pleasant enough to be around, but I had already lost my trust of new people.
"Hi, Zachary." Elaine said warmly. "It's nice to finally meet you!"
I blushed shyly and slid behind Greg making Elaine and my foster-dad laugh.
"Elaine, could you let me know when Mr. Montgomery gets here, please?"
"Absolutely, Mr. Harris." Elaine replied.
"Thank you, Elaine." Greg said before he led me back into a dimly lit hallway. Greg stopped outside of a dark wooden door and opened it before he motioned me inside. "This is where I spend my days, buddy."
Greg's work office was smaller than his home office, but it was decorated along the same lines. The same dark wood furniture populated the small room, and there multiple certificates hanging in frames on the wall behind his desk. Greg had me sit in one of the chairs across from his desk while he went and sat in his high-backed leather chair.
"Did you bring your book?" Greg asked as his computer slowly came back to life.
I froze for a moment and realized that I had left the tattered copy of my book at home.
"It's no big deal, Zach." My foster-dad said with a smile. "Mr. Montgomery and myself are always having meetings. I'm positive we can still get him to sign your copy like he did the new one."
I nodded sadly and sat back in the chair. Greg talked to me every now and then over the next few minutes, but I kept getting distracted by a strange itch in the back of my mind. My phone chimed and I glanced down to see that I had a message from Gavin.
Gavin: Tell Uncle Greg that my dad said I could stay the week.
Me: Okay, I will.
Gavin: Thanks, Zach!
I slipped my phone back into my pocket and glanced up to see Greg scanning a document. I was going about to relay the message to my foster-dad when the phone on his desk beeped once.
"Mr. Harris," Elaine's voice came out of the speaker. "Mr. Montgomery is here to see you."
"Thank you, Elaine." Greg replied. "I'll be right there."
Greg smiled excitedly at me.
"I'll be right back, buddy." Greg told me. "Okay?"
"Yes, sir." I said quietly.
Greg ruffled my hair and left me alone in his office for a moment. The itch turned to a buzzing sensation before it suddenly stopped completely. I scratched the back of my head in confusion and glanced around me to see if there might be something in the room that was causing the buzzing, but there wasn't anything besides the phone and computer on Greg's desk. I shrugged it off and turned my head to look out the window. Sitting on the bush outside was another cardinal. It cocked its head to the side before it hopped closer to the window. I was about to slide out of my seat when I heard the sound of Greg's voice approaching from the hallway.
"I just finished putting the final touches on the proposal, Mr. Montgomery." Greg was saying. "I made sure that the clause about the Youth Shelter was added this time."
"Please, Greg." A baritone voice said with a rich sounding laugh. "You can call me David. I get enough of the Mr. Montgomery from my Publisher. I don't need it from you, too."
"I'll try to remember that, David." Greg replied with a chuckle. "Old habits are hard to break, though."
"I'll forgive you, this time." David stated. "Did you remember to pick your foster-son up from school?"
"Absolutely," Greg said. "He's in my office, actually. Natalie would have murdered me if I had forgotten to grab Zach."
"That poor kid," the baritone voice said. "You brought an eleven-year-old to a lawyer's office? Next time you need a babysitter, just call me, Greg. I do have a sixteen-year-old daughter."
"Well," I glanced up as Greg stopped in the doorway. "Let's just hope that it's you that needs the babysitter."
"What do you mean, Greg?"
Greg turned and entered his office with a brown-haired man right behind him. He was tall and wore tan khakis with a green polo shirt that brought out the green of his eyes. It was the boy beside him with his face buried in his cellphone that made me gasp in surprise, though. Neither of the newcomers had noticed me yet, but I definitely saw them both. I couldn't believe my eyes as I stared at the blonde-haired boy. It was like somebody had cloned me, and the boy with the tan standing across from me was the result.
"Zyan?" The man asked with a sharp intake of breath. His eyes were wide in disbelief as he glanced over towards Greg. "Is this a trick?"
"No, David." Greg said with a grin. "This is all real. If you can get Kyan to pull his nose from his phone long enough, he would be able to confirm it."
"Confirm what?" The boy asked as he glanced up at Greg. David reached over and grabbed Kyan's shoulder. Kyan started to turn his head to see what the man wanted when his blue eyes met mine. "What do you..."
I stood slowly from the chair and managed to set my cellphone on Greg's desk. The tears were falling from my eyes as I took a step forward. I knew them! Both of them! The boy had come to me so many times when the darkness seemed like the only escape I had left to me. He had been the only thing to keep me from going over the edge throughout the years with promises of this very moment. Memories of the man holding me in his lap as he typed away on a laptop flooded back to me as I took another step. I saw him tuck me into bed before kissing me on the forehead and wishing me a goodnight. He always told me that he loved me, and I had only ever felt the safest when he held me tightly in his arms. The man was my father. The boy was my other half.
The room spun around me as I reached out for my twin brother.
'I found him,' I thought as I slipped into unconsciousness. 'I found the other me.'